Learn How to Listen Better — And Win More Customers

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By Don Sturgill

Most of us don’t know how to listen.

Communications research shows that almost all of us consider our listening skills to be adequate – probably even above average.

Those same studies also reveal the reality: We comprehend about one-fourth of the information presented to us.

Consequently, most of us have a problem that is affecting all our relationships, both personally and professionally, yet it is a handicap we don’t often admit or even perceive.

How IBM’s CEO learned to listen

Sam Palmisano faced a language barrier after being assigned to lead IBM Japan. He found that his listening necessarily centered on one thing only: trying to understand the message the speaker was seeking to convey.

All other motives fell to the wayside. He wasn’t listening to “critique, convince, or object.” Palmisano was listening “solely for comprehension.”

Later, as CEO of IBM, Palmisano would reflect back on that experience and realize it was in Japan that he really learned the value of listening — and that the ability to listen helped to catapult his career.

Would improved listening skills help your company succeed?

Listening skills
via Chris Lewis

Here is an example from my own experience.

As a contributing writer, I was asked to sit in on a special meeting called by one of my clients. The company president delivered a wonderful monologue about messaging, and how important it is for all sectors of a company to maintain a consistent voice.

All fifty-some listeners nodded and agreed.

He then opened the floor to questions, and that is when the conversation effectively stopped.

After several writers from his in-house creative team pointed out that their messaging was being changed at the C-Suite level – that it didn’t matter what they said, it would never reach his desk intact – the president waved them down and refused to hear any further complaints.

Because he failed to listen, nothing changed.

Here are three guidelines for listening more effectively:

  • Practice listening solely to understand. Pay close attention to the speaker’s message; don’t worry about how you will respond.
  • Save objections and arguments for later. Your first response should consist of requests for clarification only. A corollary to skillful listening is the ability to ask excellent questions.
  • Your listening will indicate your respect to the speaker. (An instant boost to the speaker’s appraisal of your attractiveness and intelligence.)

steps to better listening

Notes from the front line of sales: Listen to learn

Consider this example from someone whose career is based on the ability to listen:

Debbie White is a salesperson’s salesperson. She hired on to a sales team fresh out of high school, made rookie-of-the-year right off the bat, and has never looked back. I met Debbie at a seminar in Los Angeles, where she was managing a launch for motivational all-star, Les Brown. I loved hearing Les speak, but it was Debbie’s presentation that really piqued my interest. Here is what she said:

In my experience, having been involved in the sales of hundreds of millions of dollars in products and services over the years, the most important trait of every great salesperson, marketer, or leader is the ability to listen.

In every situation – whether with a prospect, a customer or in resolving a problem, we can only communicate and respond effectively by hearing our customer’s true core problems and never approaching the conversation with self-focused agendas.

Debbie then gave an example of how listening can improve the bottom line:

One of my clients sells online luxury vacation rentals in the Rivera Maya. We have seen a 25% increase in revenues, just by my working with the team to show them how to listen.

Every member of the sales staff must make a sincere commitment to really understand the potential customer’s needs.  When people feel heard, they can trust you enough to believe the solution your product or service offers will work for their problem.

Before they feel heard, you’re really only talking to yourself.

Listen to the customer
via Idaho Editor

Someone your business must always hear

In every business, it is crucial for the company to listen to customers.

Many companies approach the Internet backwards. They see social channels, pay-per-click advertising, and the company blog as another opportunity to get their message out.

There’s a better way to approach your customers online, though: View the Internet as an excellent place to listen.

Customers who feel listened to are happy customers. Customers who don’t … aren’t.

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Don Sturgill

Freelance Writer at Don Sturgill
Writer, Dreamer, Believer and Friend of Entrepreneurs, Don Sturgill is a freelance writer and the author of Roadmap to Freedom (Dream Into It), the field manual that helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality … fast. Don is from Bend, Oregon, PPC capital of the world. His home on the web is at donsturgill.com.

12 Responses to Learn How to Listen Better — And Win More Customers

  1. Listening is a very hard skill to learn. We may think we are doing it, only to find out that we weren’t present with the speaker at all. Thanks for the article.

    • So true, Ann. Seems to me the most important things in life are the easiest to forget … I find it important to start every day by taking time to remember who I am, where I am headed, and how I can get there. I appreciate your insight.

  2. Great points!

    I left my consulting job in the last year to startup my own company. I thought I would be transitioning into a role that would require much talking – to manage the company, clients, and employees.

    I was wrong. As a business owner I must now hone in my listening skills better than ever.

  3. Listening skills is often confused with hearing. Understanding Listening skills is paramount to a successful business. It involves eye contact, paraphrasing, communication skills, teamwork, remembering, use of short term memory, body language etc.

  4. We listen with our eyes as much as with our ears. Listening is about absorbing everything that the speaker is trying to tell us. Body language and facial expressions add nuances that our ears do not pick up on.

    Trying to explain the differences between hearing and listening to children is very difficult. I failed with my own kids. They have tape recorder memories and managed to pass all their school exams without ever listening. They got top grades with zero understanding because they never listened.

    Listening to a class is one of the skills that differentiates a good teacher from a mediocre one. The good teacher “listens” for responses even while he is talking. Facial expressions tell the good teacher whether to expand an explanation or to phrase things another way.

    The example of salespeople listening is an excellent one. People outside of sales often think it is just a matter of beating down a potential customer, but in reality the customer has so many opportunities to walk away from the deal that that approach does not work. The only way to make a sale is to solve the customer’s problem, and listening is the only way to find out what his problems are.

    • Phil, your admonition to “listen, even when talking” is an absolute gem. Ditto for the need to LISTEN in order to discover the problem. So many times, I find myself rushing through a client interview … trying to tell him or her what the problem is, rather than listening to get the customer’s perspective. OUCH.

  5. Many articles have been written on the subject and it is rare to find a fresh voice. Your three guidelines for more effective listening are truly powerful and hard hitting. Ask my wife, my kids, my colleagues, and hangout buddies they will all laughingly agree that I need to have this screen captured and set as my desktop background. I am very careful listener to my clients, but it is not fair that if I can do it for them, I should be able to do it for all

    Too often people are preparing their rebuttal and not listening to the full point being presented. And this alone encompasses all three points.

    Not sure if I should share this with my wife 😉

  6. That’s an excellent point, Jason. Watch any dating couple … all starry-eyed, looking at one another and chattering excitedly. Catch them a few years into marriage, and they may be paying more attention their smartphones than to one another. Listening takes work. It is a deliberate action. Take your wife out and pay attention to her like you did in the early days … that will be “showing her this article.”

  7. Your references pointed out one of the major challenges to effective listening – we can think a helluva lot faster than people talk. That leads the mind to wander.

    Too often, listeners are thinking more about what they are going to say next, than what the speaker is saying.

    Outstanding article. I liked the reference to Sam Palmisano’s focus on listening just to comprehend. We can all learn from that.

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