The idea for this blog post came while I was listening to a recent episode of Proposify’s podcast, Agencies Drinking Beer, where Kevin and Kyle interview Chris Spurvey, who’s on a mission to help people get over their fear of sales.
Chris talks about how when he asked his LinkedIn network of entrepreneurs and salespeople, “What’s the best sales advice you’ve ever received?”, the answers overwhelmingly came to the same conclusion:
Be a better listener.
It reminded me just how true and powerful this advice is, but that not enough people value or practice listening as a skill. It’s not exactly something you put on your resume that makes employers swoon, but it should.
When I reflect on difficult work situations with clients, with co-workers, on projects, and proposals, many of the issues could likely be traced back to poor listening, on all sides.
You know what my favourite client compliment is after I’ve delivered work?
“Wow, you really listened to us.”
That they usually sound surprised says a lot about their experience dealing with salespeople, agencies, businesses, and other humans in general.
I bet you already consider yourself a good listener. Most people do, but what most people are good at is hearing, not listening. There’s a big difference.
And that difference can make a big difference to your bottom line.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the power of listening to make you better at sales, customer service, creative work, and life itself (cue swelling violin music).
There is a difference between hearing and listening.
Hearing is the physical act by the ear to perceive noise. We hear things automatically, there’s really no effort involved. But listening is an active skill. It’s about focus, reception, understanding, and response.
This may seem elementary but we’ve all been guilty at times of hearing as opposed to actually listening, whether it's a conversation with a client, small talk at a party, or on the phone with your mom.
Listening isn’t about waiting to talk.
So many times we’re not really listening during conversations, we’re just letting the other person have their turn to talk and then waiting, like a panting pug anticipating a treat, to jump in and have our turn.
If you’re only thinking about what you’re going to say next while the other person is talking, there’s no way you can concentrate on what they are actually saying. And if you’re not listening to what they’re saying, what you say next is going to sound dumb. Or like you weren’t even listening.
Listening is not about you.
I’ve gone to client meetings with agency owners, sales people, and creative directors who start right off the bat by talking about themselves, their accomplishments, the agency, what they already think they know about the client’s industry, and even making big proclamations like, “You gotta change your name.” or “I’ve got a new tagline for you.” WHAT? We don’t even know the issue yet!
When I first meet with clients, I ask a lot of questions. I ask way more questions than I do talk. The more they tell me about their business, their challenges, their goals, and their customers, the better equipped I am to provide a solution.
I save most of my talking for later meetings when I deliver back to them. I may reiterate in the first meeting what I heard from them to make sure I’ve interpreted things correctly but my goal in those first conversations isn’t ME, it’s THEM.
The more you listen, the more you learn.
I often feel like some sort of Nancy Drew/John Luther hybrid when I’m interviewing a client or being briefed by a colleague for a project. Sometimes I joke that they might feel like they’re being interrogated, minus the bright light.
I ask questions that might trigger an idea, I want to be sure I don’t miss a single detail, I’m taking copious amounts of notes, and I’m hoping the longer we talk, the clearer the ‘motive’ will become.
Listening carefully can reveal the key to unlocking the mammoth door that stands between your client’s challenge and your brilliant solution, or the barrier that’s holding a sales lead back from signing on the dotted line.
Being listened to makes people feel good.
I read an Utne Reader article in university that transformed the way I interact with people. (believe it or not, this was pre-internet, so I can’t link to the article). It was about the power of listening and the art of conversation. One of the claims it made is that if you treat people like you find them interesting, they’ll become more interesting.
The idea is that people feel good when they think you find them smart, or funny or interesting, and most people like talking about themselves. So the more you ask them questions about themselves or a topic they find interesting, the more they’re going to try be engaging.
Since that time, I have tried to employ this in both my business and personal interactions. It’s not about being fake and pretending you like someone or find them interesting when you don’t. It’s about believing that most people have something to say, you just need to give them an opportunity to say it.
And what they end up saying may be hilarious, fascinating, educational, inspiring, or maybe even offensive. But you’ll never know until you listen.
People want to be listened to. It makes them feel important, respected, and understood. Making clients feel like they’re being listened to will strengthen your relationship with them, build rapport, they’ll feel like they can trust you, and that you have their best interests at heart, not just trying to turn a buck.
Listening doesn’t mean doing what people tell you.
While obedience might have been what Mrs. Forsythe meant in grade 3 when she wrote “Jennifer is a good listener” on my report card, in the business world being a good listener doesn’t mean you have to do what your client tells you to do. That’s not their job. Their job is to tell you what their challenge is; your job is to listen and then come up with a solution.
Lots of time clients think they know what they want, and sometimes they’re right, but usually you need to listen to what they’re saying and convince them of what they actually need. That’s why they’re hiring you and not doing it themselves.
So how do you become a better listener?
1. Focus on your client’s needs, not on your own agenda.
Stop thinking about the outcome you want from this meeting and think about the outcome that’s right for your client. This will shift the entire atmosphere away from pushing, because pushing in sales is no one’s idea of a good time.
2. Ask questions
Clients aren’t going to naturally open up and tell you everything you need to know because for one, they don’t know what you need to know. Prepare an outline of questions to help guide your conversation but be flexible with it. You may need to follow up a question with another question, get some clarification, or the conversation may go on tangents you hadn't anticipated but turn out to be very useful.
[By the way, here's a link to my discovery questionnaire I use with clients. Feel free to adapt and use it for your own needs.]
3. Use your eyes, not just your ears, to listen
Good listeners are also very observant. Pay attention to their body language, how the client interacts with other people on their team, what their office environment is like, how they’re dressed. All these details will help you understand your client, the whole picture, and ultimately help you service them better.
4. Be aware of your own body language
Everything about you should signal to the client that you are interested and focused on them. Sit up straight in your chair without being robotic, lean toward them slightly, look them in the eye when they’re talking, and provide visual cues of interest like nodding your head in agreement, smiling, etc. Be engaged, but be natural.
5. Stop Interrupting
Just stop doing it, period. It’s rude, it breaks the train of thought of the other person, it makes them feel like what they’re saying isn’t as important as what you’re saying, and it will create barriers. Being interrupted frustrates people, makes them feel bad, and it will get you nowhere.
6. Put your phone away
Looking at your phone during a client meeting, especially while they are talking, is as bad, if not worse, than interrupting. Don’t look at it, EVER.
(It seems silly that I even have to include those last two points considering we’re all adults but, ummmmm, yeah.)
You can do it
Becoming a better listener isn’t really that hard.
Stop thinking about yourself first, and focus instead on the other person. It’s a shift in thinking and takes some practice but it can be that easy, and that rewarding.
And if you’re an employer, it might be a good idea to start including “good listener” among the qualifications for your next hire.
I credit being a good listener with helping me deliver better work, be more collaborative and productive with co-workers, and develop strong client relationships. It improves my ability to be more creative, strategic, and insightful. I think it’s also why I have some really great friendships and a rewarding personal relationship.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting I’m a perfect listener, but I work hard at being better because I see the significant benefits, both professionally and personally.