Are you a good listener? About 80 percent of our waking hours is spent communicating, about half of that listening. Traditional education usually concentrates on reading, writing and speaking. But even if Listening 101 wasn’t in your school program, there is hope because improved listening skills can be learned.

To succeed in professional selling, you must be able to offer a product or service that satisfies the buyer’s needs. Presenting features and benefits is not always enough. Careful listening not only uncovers the prospect’s true buying motives, but also provides information to make the presentation more meaningful and closing less difficult.

Effective listening is more than merely hearing what is said. Besides openly receiving the message, you must think as you listen, maintaining eye contact with the speaker and putting aside other activities.

As an interactive process, there are other key components to listening: interpretation of what is being said, which leads to understanding or misunderstanding; evaluation, which includes weighing and deciding how to use the information received; and responding based on what was heard, understood and evaluated.

When you listen in this manner, you can recommend a logical, reasonable, acceptable buying decision to the prospect. There are several mental activities that can sharpen your listening even more:

• Be patient – Allow the speaker plenty of time to answer questions and express ideas. Find the prospect’s mental rate of speed and then gear your thinking to that rate. Even though the speaker is saying something exciting, wait until the message is complete and you are sure that you understand it all before you jump in with your own thoughts.

• Take notes – Remembering everything a person says is difficult. The mere physical action of writing down a few key words reinforces your memory and understanding. The notes you make will be useful as you begin to present features and benefits. You can go back to the prospect’s own words to help you show your product’s applicability to the problem.

Taking notes means you consider people’s words important. They perceive it as a compliment and have confidence you will follow up with suitable action.

• Avoid prejudgment – Not only should you allow the speaker to complete a message before you comment or respond, but you should also wait until you have heard the entire message before judging it. Making value judgments colors your thinking and creates emotional blind spots that block your ability to make a buying recommendation. Jumping to conclusions is a common fault of poor listeners.

• Reinforce – Anchor the points made by the prospect in your mind and in the prospect’s. Use your own reinforcing responses to achieve this purpose. During your presentation, repeat one of the prospect’s specific concerns and solve it with a feature and benefit of your product or service. The prospect will realize you really listened and are trying to satisfy his needs.

• Review – Store key phrases in your memory to be used later when you present benefits. This conveys your empathy. People do not care how much you know; they want to know how much you care. This is also helpful at closing time because it allows you to close by recalling ideas originated by the prospect.

• Capitalize on speed of thought – Most people talk at a speed of about 125 to 150 words per minute; but you are capable of listening at up to 600 words per minute. Thus, you can think about four times as fast as the average prospect talks.

All that spare time is valuable. The poor listener uses it to fidget impatiently, to think about what happened earlier in the day or what will happen later, or to plan what to say as soon as the prospect takes a breath. Successful sales people have a plan to follow for using this time profitably:

• Anticipate where the prospect is going – If you guess right, your thinking is reinforced. If you are wrong, compare your thoughts with the prospect’s; look for the main point the prospect is making.

• Mentally summarize the message – Pinpoint problems, misconceptions, attitudes, objections or misunderstandings. What you learn can be an excellent guide to the items that should be stressed in the presentation and at the close.

• Formulate a response, but not before you hear everything the prospect wants to say. Listen, understand, and then turn the prospect’s words to your advantage.

• Listen between the lines – Nonverbal messages are as important as verbal ones. Watch facial expressions, body movement, and position; listen to the tone of voice and volume changes.

Silence speaks quite as eloquently as words. You do not need to speak the split second the prospect completes a sentence. Give yourself time to formulate an effective reply. If you need a little time, say something like this: “That was a thought provoking statement. Let me think about it for a few minutes.” You then project the image of a problem solver.

If you follow these guidelines, you will become a more effective listener and avoid common poor listening habits that lose sales.

Prospects become annoyed when they are interrupted and challenged. They dislike sales people showing off with personal knowledge and topping everything.

Prospects are also sensitive to subtle body language behaviors which suggest inattention. Don’t doodle while taking notes. Maintaining eye contact does not mean blank staring, but it does mean controlling how and where your eyes wander.

The salesperson who listens well to the prospect will find that prospect will listen well to the salesperson. And that translates into more sales.

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