Sales Conversations — Set Up the Listening

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Executive conversation set up listening


I spent the day yesterday with my executive coaches from GAP International. This group works with executives and their organizations to create “breakthrough organizations”. A breakthrough is an extraordinary and important outcome for which the way of achieving it is not known. It is not predictable from a projection of the current state of the business.

The GAP concept is, extraordinary results are produced by extraordinary actions. Extraordinary actions are produced by extraordinary thinking. Most people, most of the time, take ordinary and predictable actions based upon “business-as-usual” thinking.

Therefore, to create breakthrough outcomes, and especially to create an organization that consistently produces extraordinary outcomes, requires a transformation in people’s thinking. The “access” to this thinking is people’s language.

By listening carefully to the conversations people conduct, and specifically the language they use in conversations, we can identify people’s thinking. This will indicate the kinds of actions they will take, and can even become a predictor of the results people will create. We can change individual and organizational behavior by changing people’s thinking in very specific ways.

Create Value Through Sales Conversations

Our specific conversation yesterday related directly to my work with selling, and one of the principles we work on regularly: sales conversations can create value for customers and become a key differentiator and competitive advantage that will result in higher win rates and margins (less discounting).

The GAP consultants defined conversation as both speaking and listening. I get the speaking part, and that I am responsible for what I say and how I say it. What is a new idea for me is that I am also responsible for how I am heard! Let me say that again, I am responsible for the listening of my audience.

This means I must “set up the listening”, “shape the way people listen”, and “attend to how people hear what I say”. This is a critical concept for sales professionals, as well as marketing, executives and any business communicators.

We always speak “into an environment”. Environment is “the sum of all the conversations people are having.” These conversations produce a background of ideas, biases, priorities, areas of focus, etc. that people bring to any conversation. We’re always listening “from something”. We are pre-disposed to hear certain things or certain ways.

Before we begin speaking into an environment, it helps to know what is shaping people’s thinking.

Conversation Example

This week my colleague and I had a conversation with a prospective customer that illustrates this directly. It was the third conversation with the customer, and we were about to start the discovery stage of our process. My colleague offered a classic checkpoint question toward the beginning of the conversation that initially seemed very appropriate: “Nancy, how did you feel about what we discussed in our previous conversation?”

Nancy’s response was, in effect: “Well the ideas are very interesting, but of course I haven’t had time to check out your competition and I have a lot more work to do before I can make any commitments …”

What happened here? My colleague was simply looking for what might have resonated with her, to confirm we were discussing relevant issues, or if she had any questions. What was shaping her listening? “I’m talking with a couple of sales guys, sales guys are primarily interested in completing the sale (little to do with helping me with my business problems), and I’ve heard this kind of sales checkpoint, or trial close, question before”.

How might we have “set up her listening”?

How about: “Nancy, as we discussed in our last meeting, we’re committed to helping customers address their primary business and sales communications needs and opportunities. Before we ask you some questions to delve deeper into this, I want to make sure we’re on the right track and focusing on the primary issues you want to address.”

“We discussed “issue 1” and “issue 2″ as two of your most important concerns (or opportunities). Could you share how you felt about our previous conversation on these issues, and are we focused on the right ones?”

This approach would have:

  • Re-stated our commitment to her as our primary intent (continuing to build trust, separating us from typical “sales guys”, and shaping her listening)
  • Focused her onto the primary issues we uncovered, which she might not even have remembered from the previous conversation,
  • Kept her from becoming defensive and going off on the tangent that mis-directed our conversation and required us to spend valuable time re-directing (as well as prevent the re-inforcement of her negative stereotype)

The “So What?” Test

When we set up people’s listening we impact accuracy and speed. The conversation is more accurate, focused and on topic. It is efficient, so we move quickly through the topics we want to cover, and avoid tangents and distractions that have to be repaired.

So, how do we set up the listening. First, start with your own listening. Tune in to your environment and the listening you are bringing to the conversation. Check in on your pre-dispositions. Clear your thinking to get aligned with your intent for the person and the call.

Next, get people “present”. Make sure they are really with you and not still thinking about what immediately preceded, or another significant person distraction. Get their full and complete attention and don’t begin until you have it. This seems especially important with conversations over the telephone.

Then, create context. Tell people what to listen for, and what not to listen for. I find a clear statement of my intent to be a good starting point. It builds empathy and opens up people’s listening.

Sales conversations are the key to selling success in the complex, consultative, or solution oriented sale. Effective sales conversations are the result of the sales professional taking responsibility for both their speaking and their audience’s listening.