A Practical Story About Effective Sales Listening
I’d like to share a personal sales story to illustrate an issue we often see in our coaching conversations with the sales people and sale managers at our clients’ companies. It provides a practical, real-world example of effective listening skills.
I recently had a meeting scheduled with a CEO after completing the first phase of our program -- a detailed analysis of the people, systems and strategies impacting sales (our Sales Effectiveness & Improvement Analysis). We had already reviewed our findings and identified the biggest issues and challenges facing his sales organization, and we had scheduled a meeting to review our recommended course of action and the investment required (both in terms of time and money) to make a meaningful impact on their sales organization, revenue growth, and profitability.
At the appointed time I called the CEO (they’re in a different city and it wouldn’t make sense to fly there for a one hour meeting) and was about to begin reviewing the action plan we had developed. When the CEO answered, he sounded a bit harried. I asked him if this was still a good time and he quickly recovered and said “Yes, yes of course, this is important and I’m looking forward to getting started and learning how we need to proceed.”
While he was extremely convincing and was working hard to make me feel comfortable, my instincts told me he was masking something. So I paused and asked a follow up question, “Jack, you sound a little stressed, are you sure everything is ok?” And he smoothly replied “Well, I am a little rushed this morning but let’s go ahead. We scheduled this meeting so let’s go forward.”
I still wasn’t buying it. Something told me I wouldn’t have his full attention on this call. So I followed up with “Jack, if you need to take care of something else this morning we can easily reschedule this call, it’s not a big deal.” And finally he said, “Really? That would be tremendously helpful. Can we talk next Tuesday morning at the same time? Thank you, that’s really nice of you. We have a bit of a crisis this morning with a key customer and I need to get involved to help turn this situation around. Thank you so much for you flexibility! I really appreciate it.”
So let me share a few observations about this exchange:
- I can’t pin down exactly how I knew he was preoccupied, but something in his tone of voice told me he was under some stress.
- I didn’t accept his immediate response that “everything is ok.” I had to press and probe three times to get to the real issue. He wasn’t giving it up very easily.
- On my sales forecast I had this meeting down as a high-probability close. I probably would have been able to slam through the meeting and close it right then and there. But I would have missed a great opportunity to build up our relationship and may have even created some resentment.
- Slowing down and asking these follow up questions allowed me to bond with the CEO and build our relationship. He was very appreciative when he finally admitted he was preoccupied with a customer crisis.
- When I’m in the program talking about effective listening skills with his sales team, I will ask Jack to share this story and that will create tremendous credibility (he’s a pretty intimidating dude and I think most of his sales people are afraid of him).
- A lot of sales people would have missed these signals and would have just barreled ahead with the call, thrilled to get the CEO on the phone.