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The Art of Good Listening

By Jack R. Snader

One of the most common complaints customers express about salespeople is that they don’t listen. And one of the quickest ways to destroy customer confidence is to make an off-the-wall comment or a misfit proposal that shows you haven’t been listening.

Listening is a critical skill that goes beyond merely keeping quiet until it’s your turn to talk. You have to hear what the customer is saying, sort out the meaning and reflect that you have understood. To improve your listening skills, keep the following in mind.

Customers may express themselves in colorful stories and anecdotes, history lessons, slang and jargon, litanies of complaints or terse pronouncements. To understand their meaning, you need both their main point and their reasons for making it. If either of those is missing, probe for clarification.

However long it takes your customer to express a complete thought, hear him or her out. If your customer pauses in mid-sentence, don’t “help” by finishing the thought for him or her. Jumping in to complete the sentence will signal that you are bored and impatient and that you assume you know what’s on the customers mind.

As long as the customer is talking, don’t interrupt, don’t comment and don’t rush in to fix this problem with your solution. When the customer is speaking – or pausing to collect his thoughts – silence is golden. Nod or otherwise signal your comprehension non-verbally. You might take notes, for example, looking up from time to time to make eye contact with the customer.

When the customer has expressed a full thought, it’s your turn to speak. Providing feedback is an essential part of listening. What you say when the customer pauses lets him or her know how well you’ve been listening.

If the customer has made his or her point perfectly clear, use the pause to concisely recap the main points. If there was a reference you didn’t catch, a term you didn’t know or a situation you didn’t fully understand, ask for clarification. If the customer made a point, but didn’t support it with reasons or background information, ask an open-ended question to encourage him or her to fill in the blanks. If the customer rambled on without ever making a point, ask what these facts mean to him or her, or what their consequences are.

What you ask should reflect the content of what the customer said. It should show that you were paying attention, genuinely interested and looking for the importance of what the customer said.

A final component of listening is looking. Not all of your customer’s feeling and meaning is imparted verbally. Observe expressions and gestures. Tensed muscles can reveal how urgent it is for the buyer to find a solution. An impatient gesture can tell you all you need to know about a competitor. A trusting smile or an icy frown may inform you how you’re coming across.

While it’s tempting to only talk when you finally succeed in meeting with a customer, sometimes it’s more important to listen.

 

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