Don’t you just love all of those 80/20 rules? It seems like you can find them in any area of human endeavor. (My favorite is in that in any organization, 20% of the people do 80% of the work.) In sales, there are several applications of the 80/20 rule, but the one I want to address today is the 80/20 rule of listening during a sales call.

The problem with most sales calls is that the sales rep just won’t be quiet and listen to the customer. Ineffective sales reps have deluded themselves by the notion that if they just keep talking about how wonderful the product is and how great the deal is, the customer will see the light and sign on the dotted line. Unfortunately, this attitude ignores a couple of important sales principles: 1) customers usually only buy a product if they are convinced it will meet an important need in their lives, and 2) sales reps will never discover what the customer’s needs are if they spend all their time talking. In order to sell, sales reps first need to learn how to listen; specifically, they need to learn how to practice active listening.

The most important principle of active listening is to concentrate all your attention and energy on the task of listening to and understanding what is being said to you. The 80/20 rule of active listening says that in any sales conversation the sales rep should spend 80% of the time listening and only 20% of the time talking. In the vast majority of cases, the customer doesn’t want to know what you think, he wants to tell you what he thinks, how he feels and what he needs. The more you talk, and the more you concentrate on thinking about what you are going to say next (instead of fully listening to the customer) the more likely you are to miss important information or clues that you could use to truly help him. As a result, you may offer the customer a solution that makes sense to you but not to him. You may miss the opportunity for an important sale. You may even end up offending the customer and losing him for good. It is imperative that you stay fully engaged in listening to him and gaining a complete understanding of the meaning of his message to you, in order to effectively respond to his needs.

Sharpen Your Active Listening Skills

Active listening is nothing more than a conscious commitment to focus your attention on your customer instead of on your self or your surroundings. This begins by adopting the goal of actively listening and paying attention to everything the customer is saying (even if you thing she is a nattering old biddy that is just wasting your time.) Listening is the only way to learn the important things you will need later in order to match the customer’s needs with the right solution. Block out every distraction and focus all your concentration on trying to understand what this person really values, what she really wants, what she really needs, and what you can offer her that she will truly value. If nothing else, remind yourself that the ability to meet your quota for this month may be connected to your ability to maximize the profitability of this call!

If you are committed to the goal of active listening, then there is an easy-to-learn skill that can significantly improve your effectiveness as a listener. It is referred to as reflecting or mirroring, and it simply means to listen carefully and then repeat back to the customer whatever it is that he just said to you, more or less word-for-word (it doesn’t have to be perfect). The value of mirroring is that the only way you can listen intently enough to retain such detailed information is to block out everything else. Mirroring automatically neutralizes most distractions. It works like this:

Customer: We really need to find a different source for sodium hydroxide. It is a key component in practically every product we make, and we have been using the same supplier for years, thinking that a strong relationship would guarantee a consistent source. But lately, they have just been taking us for granted. They keep raising the price and hitting us with extra fees on top of that. They are also starting to limit the size of our order unless we commit to big, long-term contracts. The worst part is that we rarely ever get a personal contact from the sales rep anymore. I feel like they are gouging us and then ignoring us because they think they can get away with it.

There was a lot of information there, and it is all important. How can you make sure you will capture it all? It starts with mirroring and it goes like this:

Sales rep: Let me make sure I understand exactly what you are saying. It is very important to you to have a dependable source for sodium hydroxide, because it goes into everything you make. You thought you had that supply locked in through a long-time relationship with your current supplier, but lately they have been taking advantage of the relationship by ignoring you and gouging you. Did I get that right?

In mirroring, you start out by saying, “Let me make sure I understand exactly (what you are saying, what your situation is, what has been happening, what you are looking for, etc.). Then just reflect back to the customer the essence of what he said to you and close with some version of “Did I get that right?” He will either say yes (and probably continue to explain his situation in even more detail), or he will say no, and go back and clarify what you missed. Be sure and also reflect back to him whatever clarification he makes to you, so you both stay on the same page. Mirroring keeps you listening, and leaves you very little time or opportunity for getting distracted.

Now all you have to do is summarize the customer’s need in one simple statement, like so: It sounds to me like you are not only looking for a dependable source of sodium hydroxide, but you also need it provided at a fair price by someone who will take the time to listen to you and work with you as a valued partner instead of viewing you as a paycheck. Am I right about that?

Now, you are ready to sell the customer something he is ready to buy.


By James A. Baker
Baker Communications

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