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It has probably taken me nearly all of my 25 years in selling and 5 years training sales people to really understand their number one problem.

It applies to all of us, almost all of the time. It is both very easy to recognise but very difficult to do anything about.

The problem is most sales people are completely oblivious to it, and when I mean sales people I mean from the MD downwards.

Oddly, you do have people who are very good at it in your organisation; they are probably in customer services or perhaps engineers.

Some of the best I have met are not even in the commercial realm. I have been lucky enough to train groups of nurses on selling and they get this immediately, in fact they are surprised it has to be taught.

If you haven’t guessed already, it was a key element in the title of Richard Branson’s latest book “The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh, and Lead”.

He dedicates a series of chapters to listening.

Sales people tend to be hired because they are very focused and driven. Nearly universally this drive comes from them wanting to do the best for themselves firstly, the company next and the customers thirdly. Although it is often all about themselves, and this is the root of the problem. You cannot listen at all effectively if there is any of “you” in the conversation.

Many salespeople are stuck in transmit mode, telling to sell. The better ones start to ask questions, some even ask good questions. Few really listen to the answers or try to understand what is behind what has just been said and ask further questions. That is because they are trying to steer the conversation in a way that suits the sales person, so their brain is focused on the next “great” question and not on absolutely every aspect of what and how the prospect is communicating.

The very best sales people develop a mindset that I call, curiously sceptical. Being curious is fantastic because you will keep on wanting to find out more, understand why and what is happening in the prospect’s world. Sceptical drives the mind to want to dig deeper to try to figure out why someone may be saying something, perhaps what they are not saying is even more important. In a meeting with several prospects at a time there is lots of non-verbal interaction. It takes real skill to observe and detect everything going on. Again you can’t do this if “you” are in the conversation.

There is a lot written about non-verbal clues and body language. I am not a fan at all of the “mirror and matching” approach to bonding and rapport. When you are in rapport you can’t help “mirror and match”. Gain that rapport by deep listening.

And a final tip – we all have a noisy head, a gibbering monkey, distracting us during meetings. It is easy to calm this annoyance. Once you have noticed you are thinking up the next question or wondering what you are having for tea or the weather forecast for the weekend, just pause and become aware of your breath. Don’t try and control it or change it. Just become aware for a couple of moments and refocus that curiously sceptical mind on your prospect.

I was once told I was the most interesting person an Academic Lawyer had ever met (probably says more about the circles they move in than me). All I had done was truly listen with my curiously sceptical mindset.

So the next time you are in company with anyone why not practice truly listening? You never know they might think you are the most interesting person they have ever met. Or failing that just decides to buy from you…

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