When you work for a B2B company, it’s easy to assume that your customers and colleagues make their decisions based only on ROI and other data. However, the higher you move in the hierarchy of an organization, or the closer you get to sales activities, the more your day-to-day life becomes about interacting with people – colleagues, bosses, investors, board members, employees and customers. And there’s one skill you must master to interact effectively with all of them: listening.
What makes listening effective? One Harvard Business Review report on listening listed four factors (in addition to the obvious elements of listening quietly, showing attention, and remembering what the other person has said). Those factors, which they found in the top 5% of effective listeners, were giving a self-esteem boost to the other person, asking relevant questions, seeking and offering information cooperatively, and offering relevant suggestions.
More Listening, Less Talking, Better Conversations
Other research on the importance of listening in business suggests that you should spend 80% of your conversation time listening to the other person and speaking just 20% of the time. To me, that means that when we meet with people, especially clients, we should think of ourselves as rabbits with big ears and a small mouth, rather than alligators with small ears and a huge mouth. Establishing a rapport, building trust and winning business is more about listening than speaking.
While the main thing customers are looking for is whether your product or service meets their needs, it’s not the only factor they consider. As the HBR report found, good listeners have conversations that build the other person’s self-esteem.
Just the Facts? Feelings Matter, Too
Positive interactions matter so much because even in the world of B2B, sales are about one person buying from another person. That means your approach to talking with – and listening to – customers needs to take a few key factors into consideration.
First, your decision-maker is probably talking to people from many potential vendors, not just you. Excellent listening skills, especially asking questions that show you’re interested in understanding the prospect’s needs and goals, can help you stand out from the crowd.
We remember our feelings about conversations much better than we retain the facts we discuss. One study found that after a week, most people could remember just 10% of what was said during a short presentation. Meanwhile, as author Maya Angelou said, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This is where active listening’s positive effect on self-esteem comes into play. Show an interest in your customer as a prospect and as a person. Ask questions that let them talk about their needs and goals. It doesn’t have to be too personal. For many people, their companies or departments are an extension of themselves. Answering questions about their needs will make them feel like they're talking about themselves and make them feel good about themselves, while also giving you information you need to help them find the product or service they need. Of course, clients will have questions for you, and you must be prepared to give them good answers. Active listening – especially effective questioning – helps with that, too.
Ask the Right Questions Before You Make Your Proposal
What should you ask about? Start with what sets their business apart. Have you ever heard someone answer yes to the question, “are you like your competitors?” I never have. Every company believes it brings something unique to market. That means you need to listen and understand what makes them one of a kind before you make your proposal, even if your offer won’t change that much based on what they tell you.
Think about how you react when someone offers you a solution before you tell them about your situation. You might assume they’re giving you a one-size-fits all solution because they don’t care what’s unique about your situation. Likewise, if you lead with your pitch instead of with listening, your customer will assume your proposal was not made for them.
Moreover, whether you’re selling a product to a potential client or pitching an idea to a colleague or manager, you must choose what to say. How much detail should you provide? Which points should you highlight? And so on. You can only personalize your conversation to be persuasive if you’ve listened carefully, asked the right questions and made the other person feel heard and valued. If you’re in a negotiation, careful listening is the key to staying on track.
When you understand what the other person needs, you can deploy one of the most powerful persuasion tools – offering examples that strike the other person as like their situation and show how you helped. The connection can be as obvious as a company in the same segment or a person in the same role. But the more you know, the more detailed your example can be. Perhaps the customer’s situation reminds you of a past client who was “feeling the same the way you're feeling right now, and what happened was…” How do you get that level of detail and insight to show you understand what they need? Effective listening.
The bottom line is that people do business with people they like. That means people who make them feel good, people who pay attention when they talk, people who ask the right questions and offer truly helpful suggestions. So next time you’re preparing for an important meeting, think about our effective listening mascot – a big-eared rabbit, listening carefully for the information it needs to connect with others and thrive.