Especially in a sales environment, listening is often attempted but riddled with distractions. Even when listening intently to customers, the pathways in our brains are always waiting to be interrupted by something more interesting or exciting. As soon as a customer makes a comment about something that we think we know about, care about or have had experience with, our brain goes there and starts to construct a response. While we are thinking up a response, guess what? We are no longer listening, as the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

It’s often said that hearing is much easier than listening, because we hear things constantly but only listen part of the time. Listening, like speaking, is individualized, meaning we all pick up different information. We listen to and for different things.

In addition, did you know that we talk at 125 to 150 words a minute but listen at approximately 500 words per minute, according to Ralph G. Nichols’ 1957 book “Are You Listening?” In other words, we are only using 25% of our processing power when we are listening. There are ways salespeople can capture that unused, excess brain power and exploit its value when meeting with a customer.

How do you start developing the listening skills of your sales team? The first step is building recognition that listening is a significant influencer on deal closure. Even a rock-solid product pitch risks falling on deaf ears when a customer senses a sales representative is not listening enough to understand his or her need.

How can we teach better listening skills to our teams in order to harness the power of listening? Here are three tips to share with your team:

1. Prepare to Listen Before You Enter a Client Meeting

Before a meeting with a customer, we often prep for what we will say but not for we will listen for. But prior to the meeting, we should be present and reduce distractions. Reviewing the interference that may impede our best listening, including clearing from our mind any past engagements and circumstances that are keeping us from focusing on the present, will help.

Then, it’s important to plan a listening agenda. This agenda should include what to focus on strategically when we are engaged in the meeting. For instance, listening for big-picture ideas and possibilities requires a focus on different informational outcomes than listening for facts, data, and other black-and-white details. While there is a time and place for both, planning ahead can help us start to harness some of that excess brain power.

2. Don’t Interrupt

It is so tempting to interject our thoughts, comments and solutions into the conversation, presuming that the other person will meet them with acceptance and even thankful recognition. The truth is, though, that these intrusions create more negative impediments than we might realize. First of all, by interrupting, we stop the flow of information — and smallest morsel of information can have the most profound meaning and significance in a client engagement.

An inopportune interruption also takes the conversation off of what is important to the customer and shifts it on to us, our company and/or our solution. There is a time to make suggestions, share ideas and recommend solutions, but it is not while a customer is speaking. The more a customer shares, the more we can learn.

Many of us have become good at nonverbal interruption, thinking it is acceptable. A quick shift of the eyes or raising of the brow, looking away, a gentle movement in our body or crossing of our arms, or even a sigh or change in breathing can alter the cadence of a conversation. Nine times out of 10, our nonverbal interruptions discredit us, leaving our buyer reconsidering what they feel comfortable sharing. It may show up in a slight alteration in their intonation, or they may completely shut down.

3. Develop a Listening-to-speaking Ratio Goal of 70%/30%

Most sales professionals think they are adding more value when they are speaking rather than listening. Speaking is inherent in the job, since we must talk in order to build relationships, share product features and benefits, and offer solutions. However, less is more in the sales space when it comes to contributing to the conversation.

In the sales department of most organizations, the more senior or capable a sales professional, the higher the listening-to-speaking ratio he or she has. Ask your team members to review their next introductory sales call, measuring their listening-to-speaking ratio. The onset of this exercise will likely garner ratios in the 40% listening/60% speaking range. Have your team members record this as their base “L to S” ratio, and suggest that they work toward a goal of 60% listening/40% speaking.

One way to stimulate this movement is to design a set of clarifying questions during the listening prep and planning stage. Well-thought-out follow-up questions will not only stimulate the conversation in order to obtain the details needed, but they also enhance knowledge and move the needle on the “L to S” ratio.

By developing the listening skills of your sales team, you will enable them to pick up the informational nuggets and essential insights shared by your customers and increase their rate of deal closures. As the Dalai Lama stated, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

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