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Are You Hearing or Listening? Decoding the Difference for Effective Selling

Attention spans are shrinking. During the first 13 years of the new millennium, the average attention span shrank to 8 seconds – less than that of a goldfish – according to a 2015 Microsoft study.

many goldfish swimming

Goldfish attention span: 9 seconds

TV commercials have largely slimmed from 60 seconds to just 15 since the 1950s, says ratings company Nielsen.

Clients seem to be tuning out faster than ever and your sales team could be leading the charge by leaping too quickly to a solution without actively listening to what’s really going on with them.

Instead of digging deeper, they wait until the client is finished talking and then launch into a solution that is ill-conceived and misses the intended mark.  By then, you’ve lost your opportunity to build a connection and trust with the client.

Passive vs. Active Listening?

Passive Listening

Passive listening is the result when we listen only for keywords or phrases to which we can react; it’s hearing the words without absorbing their meaning. Men (myself sadly included) are infamous for doing this during conversations with their wives.

archery target - nothing hit the mark

You have missed the mark

They multi-task, nod and respond with an “uh huh” until they hear that one word or phrase that resonates with them.  I’ll leave it to you to deduce what happens next.

Likewise, with clients, if you jump to a solution too early, they’ll think that you just don’t get it. You come across as being transactional— you’re just there for the sale and not to help them solve their problem.

You’re not connecting with what they’re trying to address, and trust isn’t built—they don’t see you as a credible partner.

Active Listening

Active listening, by contrast, involves a deeper level of understanding and extrapolating the meaning into the broader context of what the client is trying to accomplish.

Active listening is actually listening for intent and meaning.

Rather than waiting to pounce on key phrases, you are listening to the entire context of what the client is saying, then piecing together how it fits with what you know about the their overall mission and objective.

Active listening is like peeling an onion—you remove the layers to get to the center of the issue.

It’s taking the conversation to the next level.  We refer to this as “double-clicking.” It’s asking a question that expands on the piece of information you just uncovered and allows you to capture more; just like double-clicking on a hyperlink to uncover additional information on a topic.

An example: passive listening vs. active listening

A man walks into a “mom and pop” hardware store and tells the salesperson behind the desk that he’s got a huge problem with water in the basement.

He and his wife just moved into the house, and he can’t get in touch with a plumber, the real estate agent, or the previous owner.

Passive listening response

ask follow up questions

Can I sell him a wet-dry vac?

If the salesperson at the store is the rule rather than the exception, as soon as the individual says, “I’ve got water in my basement,” the first thing that’s going through that salesperson’s head is: What can I sell him to get rid of that water?

  • Can I sell him a wet-dry vacuum?
  • Can I sell him a mop and bucket?
  • Can I sell him a fan to get the moisture out of the basement once the water’s gone?

In this case, a salesperson hears that a customer has a problem and immediately jumps to a solution.

Active listening response

If that same homeowner tells the identical story to the hardware salesperson and he actively listens, instead of offering the immediate solution to the homeowner’s problem, he’s going to ask a few more questions to get a little bit deeper—that double-click—to clarify what the problem is. He’ll say, “Tell me a little bit more about the water—where is it coming from?”

image of lightbulb with question mark

Who what where when why how?

And the customer might say to the salesperson, “It’s coming from the window wells that have filled up with water overnight.”

Salesperson: “Okay, tell me where you live.”

Customer: “Yeah, I live up on such and such a street.”

Salesperson: “Okay, I know the houses up there—tell me a little bit more about which house you live in.

Customer: “It’s 73 Hilltop Ave.”

Salesperson: “Oh, it’s that house. You know what, that’s really interesting because I know the previous owner and this same issue happened to him several times. One thing I want you to do before we go any further is to go home and check the gutters to see if they are clean, because when those gutters are clogged, water spills over them and fills up those window wells.

The other thing I want you to check is the drain in the middle of the basement. Clear the drain. If you can do that, it should allow the water to exit the house.”

By actively listening, he’s not listening to sell the person anything—he’s looking to understand the issue and the problem the individual has and then, based on that, he can provide a solution down the line.

That homeowner became a customer for life because the salesperson did not try to sell him anything he didn’t need.

By actively listening, you’re building trust with your client and elevating yourself beyond a transactional relationship.

Your client is now looking to you as a trusted advisor and you are escaping the dreaded ”vendor” relationship. You fully understand the challenges and outcomes your client is trying to achieve.

The lack of a sale on the front end, in this situation, resulted in bigger sales further down the line (this is a true story by the way).

Two practical tips

How to build these concepts into action plans?

  1. Ask clarifying (or double-clicking) questions

If you’re passively listening, the first response is going to be a solution.

On the other hand, if you’re actively listening, you’ll ask questions that will get you deeper into the conversation.

  1. Use emotional intelligence

You can tell when people are not paying attention. Body language is a clear tell that you can identify.  You’ll know whether a person is engaged.

Emotional intelligence allows you to break down those body-language barriers and connect authentically to a client by demonstrating a deeper level of understanding.

Summary

  • Passive listening is listening to sounds.
  • Active listening is listening for intent.

The key to becoming an active listener (and to winning your customer’s trust) is truly listening to what your client is saying by asking double click questions—drilling down deeper to uncover the real issues.

If you’re asking clarifying questions, the client is going to open up more and give you an insider perspective into what the problem might be.

This process is going to build trust with your client, and it’s going to allow you to be able to provide a solution at the time that’s appropriate.

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