Master the Art of Listening to Increase Sales

John Asher, CEO, Asher Strategies

Master the Art of Listening to Increase Sales

When most elite salespeople meet a new buyer in person, they will follow a simple three-step process:


  1. Build rapport by getting the buyer to talk about what they want to talk about.
  2. Perform a robust, disciplined needs analysis to understand the buyer’s needs.
  3. Offer a solution that is a perfect fit.

Average salespeople without sufficient sales training take the opposite tack.  They start talking about their solution first.  In some cases, they'll start with a formal presentation.  

Salespeople Usually Talk Too Much

Elite salespeople realize it’s important to get buyers the information they need, but they also know why talking too much is a problem: When you’re talking, you’re not listening. Salespeople need to learn from buyers, and the only way to do that is by asking questions and listening.  Studies show that three in four buyers would be much more likely to buy from a salesperson if they would just simply listen to them. And more than nine in ten major procurements are lost because the seller did not really listen to the buyer­ and respond with offerings that completely addressed the buyer’s needs. If you don’t listen, how will you know how to propose a “perfect” solution?

In addition, it's impossible to build rapport if you don't listen. Nobody likes or trusts a salesperson who launches into a self-centered presentation without showing any interest in the buyer's problems. When you present your solution first, buyers can feel like they are being "sold to."  But if you listen first and then have an intelligent conversation that includes offering solutions that respond to the prospect's needs, buyers feel like the meeting has been a total collaboration.  

Most salespeople need to make a conscious effort to listen because we, as humans, are naturally predisposed to talk. Talking too much is a pervasive problem in the sales training industry. Many sales training programs focus on helping salespeople polish their presentations. In other words, salespeople are taught to talk, not to listen. The result is that the average salesperson’s natural aversion to listening is often reinforced by training. Such a training approach can be a serious liability since we know that people are more inclined to buy when a salesperson simply listens.

Listeners Are in Control

Even though the buyer feels like they are in control of the conversation, you the seller are actually in control. You are asking questions and listening. You are guiding the discussion so you can get the information you need to determine if you can help the buyer. If your company has just what the buyer needs, you can come in with a spot-on solution. If instead, you start by reciting everything about your products and services and all their great features, you're going to miss out on offering the buyer a solution that's a perfect fit. You'll also alienate the buyer by showing that you're not interested in their needs and only care about making a sale. 

Just recently one of my current customers and insiders, a vice president at a Midwestern distribution company, was concerned about slumping sales in one of his regions. He asked me to reach out to the regional sales manager and see if I could help him. I immediately began constructing a long email about our offerings. Luckily, before hitting “send,” I remembered the old sales adages: “Don’t show up and throw up!”  Don’t use the “spray and pray” approach.

Fortunately, my own sales training course techniques quickly kicked in. I remembered the importance of asking questions and listening. So I deleted my email except for the introductory rapport-building sentence. Instead of sending a long message detailing all the things I wanted to offer to him, I asked him two simple questions:

  1. How are sales in your region?
  2. What sales challenges are you currently having?

Within a few hours, I received a two-page response listing his current challenges and requesting a call to discuss them. Since I started with questions instead of answers, he felt that I cared about his situation and wanted to explore a solution with me. The moral of the story: Don’t work too hard for the sale by talking too much. In sales, when it comes to talking, less is more.

Questions Get the Buyer to Share

Sometimes a prospect will ask you a question that is so open-ended your instinct may tell you to dive into a long-winded answer instead of staying in the question-asking mode. For example, once I was meeting with a department store chain that was interested in giving our sales aptitude assessment, the Advanced Personality Questionnaire (APQ), to its sales staff. Bob, who was a company board member and liked the APQ, arranged a meeting for me with the head of human resources and told me I had fifteen minutes. After a few introductory comments, Bob told the HR director, “I brought John in to talk about his sales aptitude assessment. I think there’s a real opportunity to help you increase sales and reduce turnover rates and training costs.” Then she turned to me with upturned palms and said, “Okay, John, what do you have for me?” As mentioned earlier, average salespeople usually respond by saying something like this: “I appreciate your taking the time to see me and I brought this two-page summary to describe our sales aptitude assessment.” Then the average salesperson would discuss a chart describing personality traits or some other relevant details of the personality assessment. That sales approach puts buyers on the defensive from the start. 

Instead of talking, I asked, "Why haven't you been using sales aptitude assessments in your hiring process?" She went on a rant about the chief sales officer (CSO) who did not believe in such assessments. But, she added, the CSO was about to leave the company and the replacement was open to using sales aptitude assessments in their hiring process. The fifteen-minute meeting lasted an hour and a half. At the end of the discussion, I closed an initial sale. This company is using our sales aptitude assessments to this day.

About the Author

John Asher, author of Close Deals Faster, is the CEO of Asher Strategies, a sales advisory consulting firm focused on improving sales for business-to-business companies. Asher is the #1 rated speaker on sales for Vistage, a worldwide network of CEOs. Over the last two decades, he has mentored a large cadre of speakers and trainers that has fueled the growth of ASHER.