Why listening skills beats product knowledge: How to train a new salesperson

Salespeople are no longer the masters of product knowledge. Buyers now seek to know as much about a potential solution to a problem they’re having as a salesperson trying to sell them it.

Buyers have changed. It used to be the case that buyers approached companies to find about a new product or service.

Now buyers can find this out for themselves. Assuming your company and competitors have enough information on a website for a buyer to gain a basic understanding of what is on offer, they are usually hoping for a meaningful conversation with a salesperson.

A meaningful conversation means going beyond product knowledge. For a conversation to result in an ongoing dialogue, and hopefully a conversion at the end, active listening needs to be used effectively.

Why active listening is a vital skill in sales?

Active listening is a specific and vital skill in sales.

Potential customers want to have conversations with salespeople to find out if they understand the challenge(s) they are having, and whether a new product/service is a good fit. Is it the right price? Are they a decent company to provide this? Do they have competent, professional staff who can deliver what they say?

These are a few of the questions a potential buyer is asking themselves. As a potential supplier to this buyer, you are going to have your own questions: Do they have a budget? How urgent does this problem need a solution? Do they have senior buy-in?

Known as qualifying questions; active listening is meant to find the answers to those, and at the same time, answer your leads questions.

And yet, too many salespeople are passive listeners. They are only half-listening. Instead, they are working out what to say next.

In sales, passive listening gets poor results. Salespeople who only half-listen and then pick up the thread of a sales script aren’t demonstrating they have the expertise to provide a solution. Prospects don’t want to hear a sales script. They want a reason to have confidence in a provider.

How can salespeople learn active listening?

As John Doerr, RAIN Group President writes, sales teams need to invest in listening skills training. He says that “reps who don’t listen, miss the opportunity to build rapport, uncover buyer needs, and let the prospect know you understand their world.”

Active listening is not a new skill. It doesn’t only apply to sales either.

In the 1940s, Dr. Carl Rogers, a founding father of psychotherapy research, called it “reflective listening.” In later years, a student of his, Richard Farson, renamed it “Active Listening.” Dr. Thomas Gordon, another student of Rogers popularized the theory through his company, Gordon Training International.

Think of any kind of appointment with another professional: a doctor, lawyer, accountant. During any appointment, are you hoping they’re going to listen to your problems fully? Sure, they’re busy. So is every professional. But when you are meeting with them, you want their full attention. You are hoping for a solution to a specific problem. Your sales prospects feel the same way.

Active listening requires the same dedication and professionalism in salespeople.

It’s a four-stage process to learn this (which requires follow-up sessions from coaches or trainers to ensure the practice is being used, and improved as needed):

  1. Listen to the prospect (actively);
  2. Repeat some of the words and context (demonstrate understanding);
  3. Get confirmation from the prospect;
  4. Ask follow-up questions (clarify).

Here is how you actively listen in a little more detail:

#1: Actively listen to the prospect

There’s listening, and then there is listening.

On one level, a salesperson could simply be listening for trigger words or phrases. Perhaps something they’ve been taught, or know instinctively from working in the same sector for a while.

Often, this isn’t very effective. It puts prospects on-edge, because they see a sales rep is simply trying to sell them something instead of understanding their challenges, their world, and why they need a solution.

So, instead, focus on the prospect. Give them your full attention. Listen to what they are saying, including and especially tone of voice, expressions or body language. Aim to put yourself in your buyers shoes. Pay attention. It’s a strategy that pays off.

#2: Demonstrate understanding

Next, show the prospect that you’ve heard them. Either repeat key points that have been said (although not too often because that might look like you haven’t understood), paraphrase, or put something in your own words.

Prospects will appreciate the fact you’ve heard them. Now is your chance to ask for clarification, unless a prospect does this as part of this phase of the conversation.

#3: Get confirmation

This is a crucial and often overlooked step. Make sure they know you’ve understood. Ask confirmatory questions, putting the emphasis on you checking your understanding.

For example, Michelle Adams, VP of Gordon Training says the result should be: “When you nail it, you know it and the other person tells you that you did by saying things like: ‘Yes! That’s it!’ or ‘Exactly, you’ve nailed it.’”

#4: Clarify: Ask follow-up questions

And finally, make sure to ask follow-up questions to deepen your understanding. But resist the urge to only ask close-ended questions. Ask open ones. Give your prospect a chance to expand upon what they want to say, what they are thinking and feeling.

Open questions gives prospects a chance to think critically about the problem and solution. It also lets them more effectively understand the company and person who could provide the answer, and therefore uncovers the compelling reasons a prospect should go ahead. Active listening gets results. Isn’t it time you started, and got training to improve this skill across the team?