We’ve all been seduced by a good sales pitch in movies or in TV series. By the strong close or the moving speech. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko convincing Teldar Paper (and us) that Greed is good. Or Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross instilling fear to motivate his real estate sales team. Or Jon Hamm as Don Draper delivering another convincing advertising pitch to his clients in Mad Men.
These expressions are about persuading the other side. About winning them over. About getting them to buy you or buy your product or just buy in. You get another human being or a group of them to do what you would want them to do. In the above examples, it’s the force of pure charisma that does the convincing. And we often think of salespeople as charismatic powerhouses that will others into seeing the world the way they do. Because that’s how they’re usually portrayed on film.
However, some of the best salespeople on the planet don’t rely on their capability to overpower. What they’ve cultivated is the ability to listen. And listen well.
Because, without listening, you never earn the opportunity to deliver the pitch.
Corey Myers, a close friend, and one of the best salesmen I know, once told me over lunch, “Sales reps are basically just waiters.”
In social settings, Corey is charming and animated. Some might even say he has an energetic mouth. A short time into our friendship, we scheduled a call to discuss my startup’s tech hiring. Corey was to sell me on his agency filling one or two of our open job reqs. I can remember what I was thinking when I fielded his phone call. I was bracing myself for a lecture from a caffeinated pitchman arguing his way into a new contract. What I got was drastically different.
After exchanging pleasantries, Corey began asking succinct, pointed questions about my young start-up. After each inquiry, he would just shut up. I couldn’t believe Corey wasn’t chewing my ear off. I could barely hear him. I even wondered if he had pressed the “mute” button, on the other end of the phone line. Gradually, I became more engaged in the conversation, as I answered each of his questions. Instead of getting yet another pitch, I had someone on the other end that sounded interested and concerned about my needs.
Imagine yourself selling as a waiter. You approach your prospect with a short inquiry, “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “How can I best help you?” The conversational dynamic shifts. Instead of being the predatory sales guy yelling into the phone, telling the customer what they need, your disposition is quite different. You’re not here to convince. To persuade. To push your agenda. You’re here to help. Who doesn’t want help?
The ability to listen well helps in other realms. In dating, listening gives you an upper hand. Your date is thrilled to be talking. You’re offering your full attention. Your date feels you empathizing, bit by bit. You both start to open up gradually. You’re vulnerable with one another. Closeness and intimacy emerge from this dance. And trust ends up being woven into the relationship.
The same goes with sales.
Asking questions and listening allows you to get to know your customer better. You’re the other party who is paying attention to them, and trying to solve their problems. Your prospect feels understood, and even take care of. All of a sudden, you’ve become very likable.
Now that you’re a likable caretaker to the prospect, and that you have changed the conversational dynamic, you are gradually earning your prospect’s ear. They have gone from protecting themselves from an upcoming pitch to opening up to you about their problems and concerns. Little by little, through attentive listening and natural curiosity about your prospect, you become a trusted confidant.
As you start getting closer to your prospect, they will start spilling the beans about their challenges and concerns. It’s time to dig in. What are their pain points? What keeps them up at night? What preoccupies them as they drive into the office every morning? What potentially threatens their job, and their ability to pay the mortgage? What will earn them their next promotion or year-end bonus? And finally — as a maitre d’ might ask — where and how can you help? And how can you help most effectively?
By understanding your customer’s aches and pains intimately, you will be able to develop a more tailored pitch, when the time comes. It will fit them like a glove and feel less like a pitch and more like a solution — or in this case, a panacea — to their problems.
We’ve covered how listening will both get you to empathize with your prospect and inform your pitch. Are there any other benefits to keeping your ears open and mind engaged?
There are plenty.
First, you maintain total control of the conversation by asking questions and listening intently. If, at any point, you manage to think that your solution won’t be a fit for a particular prospect, you can politely bow out instead of pushing things any further. It might avoid an expensive trial, or deployment. You can disqualify the prospect fast and avoid deploying further resources into a customer that might make your life difficult over the long haul.
Second: in many instances, your job as a salesperson is to be the eyes and ears of your company in the market. You’re usually one of the first people on the ground. The knowledge you bring back to internal company meetings might end up informing product strategy, marketing, or even recruiting.
By listening carefully, you might get crucial industry information from a prospect. They might tell you about a competitor’s product roadmap, and their plans to develop a new feature which could threaten your business. Or they might alert you to a competitor losing a key executive. Salespeople are relied upon to bring back these important bits of information back to headquarters. That data can shape company strategy at the board level.
Third, you can listen inward. Although I’m a big fan and practitioner of mindfulness, I am talking about listening to what is happening internally at your company. A colleague needs help on a complicated deal. The #1 sales rep on your team is offering tips on dealing with enterprise customers and their last-minute objections. Or a managerial opportunity opens up to lead a sales team of 4 reps. Tuning in to what happens inside the walls of your office building is sure to pay dividends.
We can all become enamored of the strong pitch on the silver screen. There’s something truly alluring about it. It’s okay to be drawn to it. But, what really makes the difference is cultivating the empathy and relationship between the prospect and the sales rep. You don’t hop on the phone for the first time with the right to pitch your prospect. You earn that right over the course of one call (or several calls) by listening to cultivate empathy and to build trust.
The best salesperson is not the one that can best explain the product or service to others. Or the one that gives the best demos. The best salesperson is the one that listens to the prospect, the market, and her surroundings; processes the information, and produces a tailored pitch. On the receiving end, the prospect feels understood, opens up the purse strings, and happily buys the product.
The tone of the relationship is now set: both parties are upbeat and pleased to be in business with one another. That’s an invaluable leg up when onboarding a new customer. It’ll ensure you get the benefit of the doubt from your new client if speed bumps arise as the relationship develops. As a salesperson, there’s no better way to ride into the sunset, as you hand the account off to Customer Success.