Active listening – a forgotten key to sales success

Active listening in sales calls

When talking about sales skills, the first thing that comes to mind for many is asking questions.  Rightly so.  Asking questions, however, is not one-way … often the best questions are ones that build on prior statements – resulting in a sales call that resembles a business conversation with a smooth flow between those participating.  

This necessitates the sales person not only hearing what the customer says but actually listening to what’s been said.  And, the customer must know you have listened. This means listening isn’t a passive activity – it’s an active sport.  What do we know about listening?    

Remember the old adage – “in one ear and out the other.”  Unfortunately this is one of those cases where the old adage rings true.  Research tells us that after listening to someone talk, immediately after you only remember ½ of what was said. And after 8 hours, you only remember ½ of that! 

This means sales people need to follow the “100 Percent Rule” – sales people must take 100% of the responsibility for making sure the customer understands them. And take 100% of the responsibility for understanding what the customer says. Let’s explore seven best practices for getting that right: 

1. Test Understanding.  “That’s a need I haven’t heard you talk about.  Before we move on could you just tell me more about …”   Testing understanding invites the customer to continue to discuss or explain so you can achieve a more comprehensive understanding of their needs and opportunities. 

2. Summarize What the Customer Says.  Summarizing is a great way for sales people to demonstrate they understand what the customer’s saying. “From what you have said it sounds like your major concern with the existing support could be summarized this way …” Summarizing restates what the customer said in a way that demonstrates understanding.  Here, it is important to distinguish Summarizing from “parroting” – the latter being a bad idea.  Summarizing paraphrases only the essentials and is stated in your words. 

3. Build Support.  That’s an interesting point – might there be other reasons for building that into the equation? For example, we’ve found in a similar case that …”  Building support reinforces or extends the customer’s support or agreement by applying what you have learned from a previous experience or by suggesting its application to a new situation.  In a business development conversation it can provide a proactive approach against competitive action and can provide additional answer to the question – Why us? 

4. Take Notes. You can listen four to five times faster than someone can talk so use the time to evaluate what is being said and take notes. Do it in a transparent way because it indicates you are interested in what the customer is saying.  One unintended outcome from talking notes is often the more notes you take, the more the customer will share. And, of course, by taking notes you’re more likely to  recall what was said and what commitments were made 

5. Evaluate the Entire Conversation.  It is important to not only listen to what is being said, but also to listen to how it is being said, and to what is not being said.  Qualifiers or evasive language is informative and the absence of information about a particular issue can be an important signal for future action. 

6. Tune into High Fidelity Situations.  Sometimes it is important to turn up the volume.  When topics enter the conversation such as: new challenges, high risk issues, or key decision criteria it is time to up your game.   Plus it’s a good time to pay attention to non-verbals. 

7. Be On the Same Page.  It always a good idea to remember that a good sales call is all about keeping your eye on the customer.  A classic trap is doing a really good job in talking about the wrong thing.  This means periodically asking and really listening to the response as to whether the topic under discussion is a priority for the customer. If the answer is no – it’s time to change topics.    

And, of course, these seven points apply to formal sales presentations, too! 

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©2011 Sales Horizons, LLC 

About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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2 Responses to Active listening – a forgotten key to sales success

  1. Dick, most people see themselves as good listeners, but, alas, we all could use improvement on that score. Excellent listening skills are rare indeed in this day and age. If anyone doubts that, ask yourself this: Why is it you can ask someone his name and A MINUTE LATER you can’t remember it? It’s happened to all of us and it should be the red flag which tells us we need to do better. Great post! The seven points give a blueprint of what every salesperson should be paying attention to.

    • Richard Ruff says:


      Thanks for the comment – I think the big deal is whether or not the customer knows you have listened and understood what they are concerned about. If you know, but they don’t know you know – you lose.


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