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Sales is not just about action but interaction
I have been involved in business-to-business (B2B) and Business-to-Consumer (B2C) sales for 50 years, however the pandemic saw a seismic shift to B2B online video selling.
As a judge in the South East Asian sales Competitions (SEASAC) and in the Turku and European sales competitions I have been privileged to see many online sales interactions. I have realised that the importance of effective interaction is equally important in the physical face-to face and online environments.
Two key attributes of sales interaction and consequent relationship building involves striking the balance between talking and listening. Having the “gift of the gab” or ‘gift’ is an English expression for a ‘smooth talker’ and often applied to people in sales. However, this image is an incorrect stereotype of sales professionals.
The ‘gift’ is perhaps a helpful attribute for attracting attention on a market stall but does not translate into higher value, more considered, business-to-business (B2B) sales. Without understanding customer needs, it is simply not possible to provide solutions, and therefore sales, especially in the more complex and global world of B2B selling.
Constructive interaction allows for clients to share their concerns, priorities or other requirements. Clients knowingly or unknowingly do not always make their need explicit.
For example, there is a need for transparency, ethics, trust, genuine support and responsibility.
Genuine interaction is a way of approaching and addressing unsaid needs.
This goes beyond just asking a supplier for a widget product or service. Long term customer sales depend on relationships.
Relationships are socially constructed; in other words, they are co-created through the interaction of words and listening. One-way talking or ‘gabbing’ is not co-creation.
Listening itself is a useful skill, however it is not natural to everyone, despite most of us thinking we are great listeners. It takes time and practise to listen effectively. A well-known Scottish charity give their telephone helpline advisors forty hours of classroom training on ‘how to listen’ with a further two hundred hours of ‘supervised listening’ to ensure their listening skills are developed before leaving their volunteer staff unsupervised.
There are several techniques that can be used to interact and engage with prospective clients, however one of the most effective is the use of Active Empathic Listening (AEL) (Drollinger, Comer & Warrington, 2006). AEL has been recognised for some time as a useful tool in successful sales (Comer & Drollinger, 1999) and as a method for improving relationships (Skaldeman, P.2006) and teamwork (C. Bletscher & S. Lee 2020).
AEL requires individuals to be able to sense what is being said, process the words and suitably respond with appropriate empathy and understanding. In other words, ‘sensing, processing, responding’ (Bodie, 2011).
This also applies online selling. Online video sales calls need a conscious effort to establish interaction. Sometimes beset with sound problems, there is a screen between you and the client. As you are consciously, or unconsciously, trying to read body language your eyes are diverted from the camera, and people like to look at eyes.
It is therefore important that in sales interactions – whether online or face-to-face – that you openly demonstrate the attributes of AEL.
- not interrupting (listening),
- sensing when to ask open and closed questions (questions that ‘open’ conversations and ‘close’ them when required)
- appropriate body language (even on a screen) and
to demonstrate understanding (active listening) and provide solutions that demonstrate empathy and emotional intelligence (Goleman,1995).
Superb listening takes skill and practice. Listening may be a trait, but it is also a skill (Purdie,1994) and skills can be learned.
The biggest barrier to effective listening is often us.
We are often trying to think of something to say before the speaker has finished their sentence. In the rush to talk about their product salespeople miss an opportunity and end up with a superficial understanding of customer’s needs.
Understanding the theory of AEL and putting it into the sales process demands thought, practice and reflection.
Research suggests that listening relationships are improved when AEL is combined with mindfulness, that is, being present ‘in the moment’ and refraining from negative judgement (Manusov, V., Stofleth, D., Harvey, J.A. & Crowley, J.P.,2020). Being in the moment demands adult-to-adult rational thinking (Stewart & Joines, 1987).
In practice this means that professional salespeople should not rush to answer an important question from a client before either fully understanding the question or ensuring they know the implications behind the question.
Perhaps ask, “Can you tell me more about this?” or if they ask you a difficult question, say “Why did you ask this?” or “How important is this to you?”. You need to comprehend how important a specific point is to the client/customer. Sometimes they are asking questions because they feel it’s ‘their turn to talk’. You should not assume your client has perfect listening skills.
Either way, you need to generate thinking time and be able demonstrate a clear understanding of their need.
Asking questions of clarity shows interest and deepens interaction, which, in turn, help co-create long term relationships.
Effective listening is not the only solution to effective selling; however, it is an important building block. Before going into any meetings, sales or otherwise, where relationships are important it would be well to remember to balance the ‘gift of the gab’, with the ‘skill of active empathic listening’.
Bletscher, C.J & Lee, S. (2020): The Impact of Active Empathetic Listening on an Introductory Communication Course, College Teaching.
Bodie, G. D. (2011). The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and evidence of validity within the interpersonal domain. Communication Quarterly, 59, 277–295. doi:10.1080/01463373.2011.583495
Comer, L., & Drollinger, T. (1999). Active Empathetic Listening and Selling Success: A Conceptual Framework. The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 19(1), 15–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/08853134.1999.10754156
Drollinger, T.; Comer, L.B.; Warrington, P.T. Development and validation of the active empathetic listening scale. Psychol. Mark. 2006, 23, 161–180.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence . Bantam Books.
Manusov, V. Stofleth, D., Harvey, J.A. & Crowley, J.P. (2020) Conditions and Consequences of Listening Well for Interpersonal Relationships: Modeling Active-Empathic Listening, Social-Emotional Skills, Trait Mindfulness, and Relational Quality, International Journal of Listening, 34:2, 110-126, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.2018.1507745
Purdy, M. (1991). Listening in everyday life: A personal and professional approach. New York, NY: University Press of America, Inc
Skaldeman, P. (2006). Converging or diverging views of self and other: Judgment of relational quality in married and divorced couples. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 44, 145–160. doi:10.1300/J087v44n03_09
Stewart, I. and Joines, V., 1987. TA today. Nottingham: Lifespace Pub.
The author is Business consultant and lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University and Scotland Specialist lecturer in Entrepreneurship, leadership and Sales.
He is also global press officer for the South East Asian Sales Competition (SEASAC), an Erasmus+ project, and visiting lecturer on sales and leadership and an occasional BBC contributor on business matters.
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