Is your sales team good at listening?  Really good at listening? The fact is that most B2B sales teams are quite poor at listening and ironically, that is arguably the most important skill in selling to the enterprise. Let’s examine the elements of listening and a framework for effective selling. The first step in listening is to stop talking.  Sounds rather obvious but it’s often ignored by sales people.  The old adage ‘Telling isn’t Selling’ is absolutely true!  Sales people should try to talk no more than 20-30% of the time and listen to the customer the other 70-80% of the conversation. My observation is lots of sales people have that formula inverted and don’t feel comfortable unless they’re talking.  I’ve seen countless examples where that discomfort is displayed by the sales rep cutting off the customer mid sentence in the middle of some valuable information that is being disclosed about their business needs, only to say something that is irrelevant and they lost the opportunity to learn about what could be invaluable to a winning sales strategy.

The next aspect of good listening is the art of questioning.  There are several parts to this; one is to come in to the business conversation with a prepared list of smart questions to uncover important information about the customer.  The questions should be grouped and asked in a logical order.  Most sales teams are all over the map with how they ask questions of the customer and the ordering of the questions.  I have seen countless situations where sales teams actually offend the customer during the qualification and discovery process because of the way that they are asking questions and the fact that in the customer’s mind the sales rep wasn’t listening to their answers and asked the same question again.  As a sales manager, the most painful thing to observe on a customer call is when your sales team ‘lost’ the customer in the conversation by not asking good questions, asking redundant questions and not listening well.

Sales people need to learn how to formulate a question so that it is clear and easily understood.  That means each question contains only one question:-)  Sales reps have a tendency to ask multiple part questions and the problem with that is that the customer only answers one of the questions, which may be the least important one. Sales reps should be recorded during real customer conversations and role-playing customer conversations so that they can hear firsthand how confusing their questions were and the fact that the customer didn’t answer them because of that.  It’s like videotaping your golf swing to understand what you’re doing wrong and how to correct it.  When sales people see the difference in the information that they can uncover from clear, easily understood questions it’s analogous to the golf swing producing a 300-yard drive straight down the fairway based on correcting your swing from the videotape.

The other temptation that sales people need to resist is asking questions and then before allowing the customer to answer, the sales rep gives the answer they want to hear as the final part of the question. This is a ‘leading question’ approach that taints the integrity of the information that you need to get from the customer.  I always want the unvarnished answer from the customer because that is their reality and that is what we should be selling to.  This is also referred to as ‘bag diving’ when sales people ask a question and dive in to their bag and start selling some products or features as part of their question. This happens all the time and the sales rep doesn’t even realize that they are doing it.  Unfortunately, the customer recognizes it and perceives you as a sales rep that doesn’t care about their needs as a customer.  It’s never an effective sales approach.

Listening in a sales context is often referred to as ‘active listening’.  I consider that to be listening coupled with discernment.  Great sales reps always have strong discernment skills.  They can listen to the same customer conversation and find insight that others don’t pick up on and then they dive deeper in to those areas to uncover the golden nuggets of information that they leverage in formulating their sales strategy.  This is called sales discovery, which is the process of smart questioning, listening, discerning and applying the insights gleaned from that process in to your sales strategy for that account and opportunity.  Discovery is the foundation of effective B2B enterprise selling. All great sales teams and sales reps intuitively perform great discovery and discernment with the customer as part of their sales process.

One last admonition related to sales listening.  Please take written notes in a business meeting.  It blows my mind to see how many sales people don’t even bother to bring a pen and notepad to a meeting.  In a 2 hour meeting with 4-5 executive customer stakeholders involved, I will typically come away with 5-7 pages of notes.  Even if you have a didactic memory, customers appreciate the fact that you think they are saying things that are important enough for you to take note of.  I have a pretty strong memory, but I still review my notes from customer meetings and find things that are important that weren’t necessarily top of mind.  Additionally, there is typically some period of time that elapses in between the next meeting with the customer and it’s good form to review your notes carefully prior to the next meeting so that you can reference important points that were discussed.

In B2B enterprise sales, it’s time to stop talking and start listening!   Shhhh, did you hear that?  It’s a customer trying to tell you what they need…