So often, we listen to respond. We’re waiting for the other person to finish talking so we can tell them what we know. Effective sales conversations, however, are rooted in a mindset of listening to understand. Let’s explore why that distinction is so fundamental in sales, and what you can learn about active listening in sales from the best sales coaches.

A strong belief in your organization’s products and services is one of the key factors that impacts selling success. When you’re convinced that your solutions create real value for your target users, you can’t help but be eager for your customers to enjoy the benefits. It fuels an inner passion and energy that furthers your achievement drive.

There is however a challenge that can come with that enthusiasm. You could run the risk of having a one-sided conversation instead of a two-way dialogue of discovery. Rather than engaging the prospect to find out what’s most important to them, you might end up dominating the discussion and subjecting them to a product dump.

Genuine passion for what you’re selling is essential. Just as critical is your ability, willingness and commitment to listen — really listen — to the customer.

The Power of Discovery

I remember the first time I had a leader who exemplified the power of listening to understand. I’d had concerns about a particular process, and I was expecting that she would tell me what to do to resolve it. Instead, she sat back and asked me to explain what was going on. She listened and, based on what I’d told her, asked me a few more questions that gradually helped to bring more clarity about what needed to be done. Together, we then developed a solution about how to move forward.

It was a profound experience. By giving me the time and space and listening to what I had to say, this leader had allowed me to come to the solution, which also made me fully invested in it. Having that aha moment myself was more powerful than having her tell me what to do because it shifted the ownership equation to me. This is a hallmark of effective coaching, and the same concept applies to selling.

There’s a saying that “information discovered is more powerful than information delivered.” When you ask good questions and listen to your customers with the goal of trying to understand them and create value for them, you give the customer the opportunity to have that aha moment. Through this discovery process, they convince themselves that they have needs or objectives that they want addressed, and that they’re open to solutions. And that’s much more impactful than having you tell them what they should do.

In today’s technology-centric world, more and more organizations are recognizing that we need to pivot to a more human- and customer-centered sales experience. Salespeople need to be more than just providers of information. They need to show respect and empathy for others in order to connect with people on a human level, find out what value looks like for them and then help them make it a reality. That’s the value salespeople bring to the equation. That’s what active listening in sales is all about. To do this, they’ll have to STOP talking about the product and instead put the customer — and, often, the customer’s customer — at the forefront.

As you consider this shift, ask yourself, would you rather be known as someone who can provide your account with information about product features and benefits, or would you rather be known as someone who’s great at helping your accounts solve their problems and achieve their goals? Which one would give you more energy? Which one would feel like you’re being more worthwhile and more successful?

Selling by Seeking-to-Understand

When you learn to approach people with a seek-to-understand mindset, it comes through in your actions, which allows you to build authentic relationships, uncover deeper needs and challenges, and ultimately create more differentiating value for the customer.

To be clear, active listening in sales- listening to understand- isn’t just about sitting in the silence and waiting for the other person to open up. Successful salespeople follow a process of asking good questions and listening that gets people talking and thinking through their current situation, their desired situation, the gap between the two and the consequences of staying where they are and not taking action.

logical vs emotional

The key is to remain in listening mode after you ask those powerful questions. Remember, you’re not listening to respond or tell them what’s so great about your product or convince them of what they should do. You’re listening to understand the situation so you can then have a conversation to work through what the solution is.

Not only does this approach build trust, it’s much more effective than trying to force or persuade someone into something. If you’re in pharma or medical device sales, for example, and you’re going in as a lay person to try to convince the Chief of Cardiology to use your product simply through the magic of your words, that’s a lot of pressure on you! Questioning to understand reverses that dynamic and removes the uncomfortable pressure on both sides. Now you’re not trying to convince them to do something; instead, you’re asking with a sincere desire to understand: Where are you now, and where do you want to be? What does that look like? Why is it important to you and what might happen if you can’t bridge that gap?

Not only are you creating exponential more value for the customer, this process also creates a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that’s vastly more fulfilling than what you would get out of pressuring someone to buy. When you understand what the customer’s problems are and what their view of the future is, you can really help them get to where they want to be. That’s a rewarding feeling. And when you truly believe your value is to help customers make a positive change and achieve their desired goals, that’s an unlimited energy source to tap.

Coaching and Leading Human-Centered Salespeople

When a salesperson sincerely cares about their clients, this approach becomes much easier to execute. Even so, we often have to break old habits. Especially when there’s a lot of external change going on — more competition, more virtual selling and other challenges in the selling environment — it’s natural to fall back to what comes easiest. And for a lot of salespeople, that means putting together presentations and talking about the product.

Sales leadership, as well as training and coaching that addresses both mindset and skill set, is essential for closing the loop. Using the pharma and med device industries again as an example, there’s a difference between developing teams to provide a service to the physician and developing them to help shape and change the way care is delivered. That’s thinking about outcomes, and it requires the ability to build trust, make a positive connection, sell effectively and do the right things the right way.

Bottom line: If you want your salespeople to be consultative sellers, you have to be a consultative leader.

Just as salespeople need to realign around what their role is and the value they provide, sales leaders need to take a closer look at what their view of leadership is. If you view leading as telling people what to do and how to fix problems, then you’re likely listening to respond, not to understand.

Being a consultative leader means helping people grow and develop into new skill sets, new opportunities and new challenges. People don’t grow and develop by us telling them what to do. Instead, it requires that you listen to understand, to evaluate where they are in the process and where the blind spots are, and, through a dialogue of questions and answers, enable the person to discover where they want to be and to take ownership of the solution. Once they’ve established how they can get better, it’s a collaborative process of working through the plan and setting accountability for it.

Successful sales coaching hinges on powerful questions, just like successful selling does. You may have a team of sharp medical salespeople who, because they’re not licensed practitioners, might feel intimidated about talking with the Chief of Emergency medicine about how the product applies to the care of their patients. They believe in the product, but they’re hesitant to go in and have those conversations.

An effective sales coach will ask questions like, what is the obstacle? What is your fear? What’s it going to take to help you get over that concern? What would good look like? What resources do you need? What can I do? What if we did this? What would this look like at the end? When you allow them to verbalize what they want to accomplish and have those aha moments, they’ll also create accountability for themselves in the process.

The Difference Active Listening in Sales Makes

There are added bonuses when you give people the opportunity to talk and share their ideas. For starters, you learn what they know. That might help you see where they could use some additional support, or it might introduce new thinking and possibilities you hadn’t thought of before.

Most salespeople want to be the change agent, the problem solver. When they get that opportunity, their energy goes up because the value proposition they’re delivering is very different. For those who are simply delivering information, once they’ve provided it, they have no other value to bring to the table.

Listen to Sell Book
Be sure to take a look at our new book, Listen to Sell: How Your Mindset, Skillset, and Human Connections Unlock Sales Performance.

Growing and developing people is also a much more rewarding job than just telling people what to do. Think about a time when somebody saw something in you that you didn’t see in yourself — when you grew beyond your boundaries of self-belief thanks to their encouragement and vision. As a leader, you have the opportunity to do that for others. Showing them that you believe they can accomplish more — and that you’ll have their back as they learn, grow and occasionally fail — will increase trust, productivity and retention and result in greater success and job fulfillment.

I think of the leaders who’ve touched my life and how hard I wanted to work for them because of their belief and faith in what I could achieve. Then there are the salespeople I’ve interacted with who’ve delivered more value than I expected by helping illuminate hidden needs and bring clarity to my thinking and decision-making process. It is an attitude that I aspire to lead and sell by and represents an organization that I want to be a member of. These are the kinds of leaders who are unleashing ability, not just for themselves, but the people who report to them. They’re the kinds of purpose-driven salespeople who are making a tangible difference for their customers. It’s all a testament to the power of listening to understand.

About the Author
crowder john portrait

John Crowder

John Crowder brings over 25 years of sales and leadership experience in the healthcare industry to the Integrity Solutions team. Prior to joining us, he worked for and led sales teams in medical device and pharma ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, spending a significant part of his career working in key account management, sales and leadership development, and marketing. Prior to his career in the medical space, John spent six years as a Division-1 football coach including a three year stint at the United States Naval Academy where he also served as a Commissioned Officer. John’s decades of experience and passion for coaching allow him to understand and address the unique needs and challenges of those in the sales and leadership professions. He lives in Annapolis, MD with his wife and two daughters.
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