When Silence Is Eloquent

Closing a sale requires more than a sharp pitch. You have to be a great listener, not just a talker. And at one key moment, say nothing at all

By Michelle Nichols

Recently, one of my clients said the nicest thing: "Gee, you sure are a good listener. I can't believe you're in sales!" I was taken aback, but then I thought about the stereotypical salesperson and understood where that attitude might come from. Simply put, folks think we salespeople talk too much. In my last column, I wrote about how important it is to use the right words when selling (see BW Online, 1/24/03, "The Terms of Sale"). This time, I'll deal with the fine art of being a good listener.

The first thing we all need to realize is that it's physically impossible to listen and talk at the same time. When we're talking, we're not hearing our customers. Notice, too, that biology leaves no doubt that we are better listeners than talkers: Ears don't close, but mouths do! You lose a lot when you don't let your customers tell you everything that's on their minds -- their situation, their needs, their wants, their dreams, their worries, their plans, and their budgets. If they can't share those things with you, they'll find another salesperson who is a better listener.

Salespeople aren't alone in talking too much. Recently, I heard a radio preacher observe: "This is the age of the unfinished sentence. When we learn how to speak while breathing in, we will never shut up." Amen to that, Reverend. But when a bad habit can cost you your livelihood, that's even more reason to hush up and sell.

Your school teachers were right -- you learn a lot more through listening than talking. That's why, while a top salesperson may well have the gift of the gab, he or she will always be an even better listener. You're more likely to hear these people say things like, "Tell me more" or "For how long?" than, "That reminds me of a time when I..."

Good listening is important at the start, the middle, and at the close of every sale. Here are some key ideas about each step, and a few tips on how to achieve optimal results by listening.

Vital signs. No matter whether the person you're calling on is a long-time customer or a first-time prospect, it's important to "take their temperature." The age-old greeting, "How are you today?" is still a very effective thermometer, but only if you pose the question with sincerity and listen to the response in the same frame of mind. People will let you know -- with words, voice, or body language -- if it's a good moment to begin your sales patter.

Missing the telling signals can cost you dearly. Consider, for example, the telemarketer from my alma mater who called recently to solicit a donation. When she asked how I was doing, I replied that I was busy putting my children to bed -- but that information didn't phase her in the least. Incredibly, and even though I had told her it wasn't the right time, she just went right on with her pitch. Needless to say, she didn't get any money -- and her refusal to listen left such a bad impression that future calls are likely to receive a similar response.

If a customer says it's not a good time to talk, mention one key benefit of your product or service -- the fact, for example, that it could reduce the prospect's overhead by 20% or save an hour a day -- and then ask if the customer would prefer to hear more now or schedule the presentation for a more convenient time. Two responses are likely: The customer will either put aside his other concerns and give you a full measure of attention, or he will be pencil you in for later, grateful you aren't one of those pushy salespeople he has heard so much about. No matter which choice he makes, your relationship with the client will be off to a better start.

Show and tell. As I wrote in a prior column, I recommend selling by asking questions. (see BW Online, 11/15/02, "Ask and Ye Shall Close"). My point here isn't just about the importance of posing the right questions but about waiting for the answers. Make sure you let prospects give you a complete response, even if you have to probe for it a little with another question or two.

Be aware of the difference between close-ended and open-ended questions. Close-ended questions, which usually result in either a yes or a no, are good for steering the conversation. They offer a way for the salesperson to control the direction and pace of the sale. Open-ended questions elicit a more robust answer and give the customer more control. The latter require self-control on the part of the salesperson, who must resist the temptation to interrupt.

After the client has signed on the dotted line, received your product, and started using it, don't stop using your listening skills. It's crucial to hear how things are working out. How could the product be improved? When would the customer like to place a reorder?

Sounds of Silence. Sometimes, to succeed at selling, you can't afford to utter a sound, not even a peep. One of those moments comes after you have named your price. After that number rolls off your tongue and over your lips, clamp them shut until the customer responds. This is an excellent skill to practice at home in front of the mirror or even to role-play with sales-team colleagues at the office. Keep at it until you are comfortable with silence -- and be prepared to endure a long one. Sometimes -- although this rarely happens -- it can be almost painful. But the first time you encounter that prolonged quiet, you'll be prepared for it.

Silence can not only close a sale, it can keep one closed. Once the client has agreed to buy what you're selling, get the necessary signatures and leave -- quickly. Don't commit the famous selling sin of "talking past the sale" where, during your continued conversation, the client changes his or her mind and you end up leaving empty-handed.

You can find plenty of examples of the importance of silence and listening. The composer Wolfgang Mozart said, "The silences between the notes are as important as the notes themselves." Even the Bible advises that "there is a time to be silent and a time to speak." No doubt about it, all the evidence says being a good listener brings significant rewards. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her web site at www.savvyselling.biz or contact her at michelle.nichols@savvyselling.biz