When most elite salespeople meet a new buyer in person, they will follow a simple three-step process:

  1. Build rapport.
  2. Perform a robust, disciplined needs analysis to understand the customer needs.
  3. Offer a solution that is a perfect fit.

Average salespeople without sufficient sales training take the opposite tact. They start talking about their solution first. In some cases, they’ll start with a formal presentation.

The Dalai Lama puts it this way: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” As salespeople, we need to learn from prospects, and the only way to do that is by asking questions and listening. If you prefer data over the Dalai Lama’s insights, studies show that three in four prospects would be much more likely to buy from a salesperson who would simply listen. If you don’t really listen, how would you know how to propose a “perfect” solution?

Perfect Listening

After rapport-building is complete, the next step is to perform a needs analysis with the buyer. Elite salespeople use three keys to become the “perfect listener” in the needs-analysis process:

  1. Totally focus on the prospect’s point of view.
  2. Ask permission to take notes—and take notes.
  3. Summarize the prospect’s needs and repeat back to get agreement.

Perfect Listening Key #1: Totally Focus on the Buyer’s Point of View

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, as Stephen Covey observed in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. They listen with the intent to reply. That’s the difference between passive and active listening. Passive listeners simply sit there, half-listening and thinking about responses. Their minds wander and their attention can easily drift. Active listeners, on the other hand, ask questions, keep their focus on the prospect, and retain what they hear. They listen with the intent to understand. Good salespeople are active listeners.

When prospects meet with a salesperson, they usually have a pain or need a gain. A pain is a problem that they’re looking to solve; a gain is an opportunity from which they’re looking to take advantage. The most effective way to uncover the pain or gain is to ask questions and listen carefully to the responses. Most elite salespeople have to first convince themselves that they can help the prospects. Once convinced that they can help, then they can offer a solution that fits.

What if you already know the prospect’s problem? Ask great questions and listen anyway. Even if you already understand the prospect’s issue, it won’t be helpful to demonstrate it immediately.

Prospects don’t believe salespeople who describe their problem; they believe themselves when they describe their problem. It’s much easier to get agreement on the problem when you repeat back what the prospect said than transmit the results of your research. And you build better rapport and develop a more collaborative environment. Plus, you may learn other important keys to the sale.

It is vital to totally focus on the prospect’s point of view. For example, if you were selling drills, your questions should be about holes. If you were selling pens, your questions should be about writing requirements. Your service must be a solution to their problem, so you must address that problem from the prospects’ perspective.

Asking Good Questions

Here are a few example questions that will get you in the right mindset to learn prospects’ highest-level needs:

  • In your opinion, what is the problem? Or, in your opinion, what is behind this opportunity? Keep asking questions until you understand their need, the need behind the need, and the root cause of the issue. The answers give you information to present the prospect with alternative solutions. When prospects have a choice of offerings from the salesperson, it gives them a sense of having more control over the decision. This ability to offer alternative solutions can cause their confidence in you to increase.
  • Could you tell me about your time frame for this project? This question also reminds prospects of the urgency of the situation. It encourages them to act quickly, which can shorten the sales cycle time for you.
  • Could you tell me about the process you use for this type of decision? This question gives you insight into how to prepare for others who are involved in the decision-making process and what types of politics you might encounter.
  • Could you tell me what you look for when choosing a real estate agent? This question will help you focus on the points of differentiation that are most important to the prospects. This question can also lead to some information about your competition. Again, prospects believe what they say way before they believe what a salesperson says.

Perfect Listening Key #2: Ask Permission to Take Notes—and Take Notes

There are several reasons to take notes. Some are based on neuroscience, which is how the brain works (marked with NS):

  • It makes it much easier to focus on what the prospect is saying and not get distracted. To listen, process the information, and write it down engages 80% of our brain (NS) as opposed to 20% when you are not taking notes.
  • It lets the prospects know their words and thoughts are valuable enough to write down. Taking notes communicates you are actively listening.
  • It makes you appear like you care and are an interested, engaged professional. In turn, your engagement will cause the prospects to take you more seriously.
  • It gives you the information to put into your CRM. 
  • It slows down the needs-analysis process (NS). It gives the prospects more time to think and share more information. And it gives you more time to process the information and devise more follow-up questions.
  • It increases information retention by 40% to 70%. Note-taking gives you much greater recall, so you’ll remember what is discussed more accurately than if you simply listened without taking notes.

Elite salespeople will ask permission to take notes. There are several reasons to ask permission to take notes. Some are based on neuroscience as well:

  • It is polite and shows respect.
  • It gives control of the conversation to the prospects (NS). The benefit to you is that if the prospects see you struggling to keep up, the prospects will slow down.
  • It’s a timesaver. No prospect wants to spend 30 minutes in a needs analysis with a salesperson who does not take notes and offers a solution that is not targeted at the right issue.

No matter how much or how little a buyer has shared with you, it’s important to make sure you have not overlooked any aspects of their needs. It always pays to ask, after you’ve exhausted all your other questions, “Is there anything else I need to know?” There are a number of variations on this question, including: “What other concerns do you have?” “Have we covered every detail that is important to you?” and “What questions should I have asked that I haven’t asked you yet?” After one or two of these open-ended questions, you’ll know if the prospects are finished sharing all the details associated with their issues.

Perfect Listening Key #3: Summarize the Prospects’ Needs and Repeat Back to Get Agreement

To further enhance prospects’ comfort level, summarize their requirements back to them. There are only two potential outcomes, and both are terrific:

  • The first potential outcome is that you have their needs exactly right. If you do, it will have a great impact on the buyer as they not only know you’ve listened, but you really understand.

The second potential outcome is you don’t have their needs exactly right. The prospects will then correct you. This correction prevents you from offering a solution that doesn’t respond to their needs.

Listeners Are in Control

Directive drivers and expressive communicators—73% percent of salespeople—are weak listeners. When salespeople with these personality styles talk too much and interrupt, they’re following their natural impulse to try to control the conversation and, by extension, the sales process. This tendency can be counterproductive because you don’t gain anything when you’re talking. Listening is what helps them control the conversation.

One of my current customers, a vice president at a midwestern distribution company, was concerned about slumping sales in one of his regions. He asked me to reach out to the regional sales manager and see if I could help him. I immediately began constructing a long email about our offerings.

Luckily, before hitting send, I remembered the old sales adage, “Don’t show up and throw up!” Don’t use the “spray and pray” approach. My training quickly kicked in and I remembered the importance of asking questions and listening. I deleted my email except for the introductory rapport-building sentence. I asked him two simple questions:

  1. How are sales in your region?
  2. What sales challenges are you currently having?

Within a few hours, I received a two-page response listing his current challenges and requesting a call to discuss them. Since I started with questions instead of answers, he felt that I cared about his situation and wanted to explore a solution with me.

The moral of the story: Don’t work too hard for the sale by talking too much. In sales, when it comes to talking, less is more.