The art of listening: Customers know when you're not paying close attention.

Author:Kenny, Jack
Position::FRONT Row

Over more years than I care to number, I have sat across from people in all walks of life to listen to their stories, write down or record what they say, and publish what I learn in newspapers and magazines. Most have been business owners and managers. In trade publishing I also have visited many customers--those who advertise their products and services to the magazine's readers--in the company of my colleagues, the sales professionals.

By far, the majority of the sales people I've worked with are top of the line, masters of their craft and knowledgeable about the customers and their businesses. Skill comes from study and practice of proven sales approaches and techniques, and knowledge comes from learning about and focusing on the customer and her customers, her products, operations, workforce, mission, and goals. The wise sales person listens to the client with one-pointed concentration.

There have been a few, though, who didn't rise to that level. Studying them in contrast to their talented peers, I saw two things. First, they knew everything there was to know already. Second, they didn't really listen. These folks invariably didn't stay long on the job, moving elsewhere eventually or being shown the door.

"Let me tell you something about sales," they say. "The customer wants only one thing--to make money. I tell him how to do that, and he pays me. It's that simple." I've actually heard variations of that from more than one person. "I don't have to know how his printing press works. I just have to convince him that if he does business with me he will definitely profit, because we're the leader."

That behavior says the salesperson stopped learning some time ago. He's satisfied and comfortable with what he has decided, and isn't open to growth. It also brings to mind this quotation of uncertain attribution: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

The chattering salesman is not necessarily a blockhead. It's likely that he's been on the job so long that he's heard the same story countless times from customers, so he thinks he knows what they want to hear. Why not just cut to the chase and go right to the solution? Here's why: No customer compares himself with others. He's different, his story is different, his company is different from the others. So sit back and listen.

Listening requires both action and non-action. The first thing is to take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth...

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