Master Listening Skills

As sales leaders, we coach reps to ask strong, impactful questions of customers and prospects. While that's a critically important skill, we often forget to devote equal time to developing the other side of the equation - listening to the answer. 

We've all managed the rep who asks a question, then pays little attention to the customer's response. They're usually thinking about what they will say right after the customer finishes speaking. Once the customer pauses for a moment or takes a breath, this rep starts talking again immediately. 

Top producing reps listen very effectively. They never interrupt, encouraging the customer to say more by asking follow-up questions. These salespeople know that what the customer says after they pause contains some of the most important information of the sales call.   

Most people consider themselves good listeners. Few of us actually are. For the summer reading list, I am recommending books on the art of listening.

Just Listen

by Mark Goulston, M.D. 
AMACOM (2015)

A Clinical Intervention psychiatrist and UCLA professor of psychiatry, Dr. Goulston wrote this concise but highly informative book on the art of hearing other people. Over 100,000 copies have sold. Using examples from all walks of life, he provides ideas, techniques, sample questions and tools to make improvements in this all important area.

The Lost Art of Listening

by Michael P. Nichols PhD
The Guilford Press (2009)

Considered by many to be an essential read, this book receives consistently strong customer reviews on Goodreads and Dr. Nichols, a Professor of Psychology at the College of William and Mary, helps us understand why we do some of the things we do (like interrupting people) and offers practical techniques to help us improve.  He tells us we have to learn to let others speak.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

by Douglas Stone Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
Penguin Books (2010)

From the Harvard Negotiation Project, the group that authored Getting to Yes, this book has been on the New York Times Business Bestseller list. It serves as a practical, easy to follow guide for approaching tough discussions - instead of avoiding them - as many of us tend to do. I used this book with a client I coached and still practice some of the tactics we learned.

Listening as a Martial Art: Master Your Listening Skills for Success

by Cash Nickerson JD MBA
Cash Nickerson Media (2015)

Great leaders have strong listening skills, often speaking less frequently than anyone in the room. Nickerson puts forth that we'd all benefit from talking less and listening more. A JD, an MBA and an avid martial artist, Mr. Nickerson (President and Principal of PDS, Inc. a $400 million dollar engineering and IT staffing firm) shares what he's learned in business and in life. You don't have to be a martial arts expert to appreciate what he has to say about listening. 

Sales is a challenging and competitive profession. Successful salespeople look for ways to set themselves apart from all the others. Encourage reps to distinguish themselves by being that rare, sincere listener.  Listening demonstrates poise, gains trust and most importantly enables your salesperson to do their best to meet customer's needs.

The Sales Leader's Problem Solver

In 2010, I wrote my first book The Accidental Sales Manager.  The idea for it came to me as I watched my clients in different industries make similar mistakes around hiring and on-boarding new sales reps. 

Company presidents and owners often left these new reps largely to their own devices, after spending a few hours with them on the first day and having them chat with a few other employees. When the rep underperformed or quit, these company leaders were baffled and upset.  Many felt hesitant to hire another rep for fear of the same thing happening again. 

In The Accidental Sales Manager I stress the importance of pre-planning for the new salesperson (instituting a comprehensive orientation to the company; setting tenure appropriate productivity goals and quotas; providing product training) as well as supporting them once they join the company (creating a sales contest; accompanying (or monitoring) them on sales calls; meeting with them regularly). 

Yet, no matter how well any manager plans, problems occur with sales people and within sales organizations - at companies of all sizes and industries. It's inevitable. To address these issues, I wrote a new book, The Sales Leader's Problem Solver (Career Press 2016). This past week, USA Book News selected it as the Winner in the category of Business: Sales.

This new book covers 15 common problems business and sales leaders face on a regular basis: 

  • The Inconsistent Sales Rep
  • Selling Only to Existing Customers
  • Social Media Paralysis
  • Salesperson Fiefdom
  • Trouble with Titles
  • CRM Non-Compliance
  • The Mysterious Remote Salesperson
  • Unethical Behavior
  • Misaligned Territories
  • The Selling Sales Manager
  • The Superstar Sales Manager
  • Loosely Defined Sales Cycle
  • The Mediocre Rep
  • Unqualified Vice President of Sales
  • High Base Salary

In each chapter, I recommend an approach to take for solving that particular sales management problem.  This includes: clarifying the problem, gathering data, determining potential solutions, presenting the solution to a supervisor or advisor, and finally, addressing the issue with the rep. 
To prevent the problem from reoccurring, I make suggestions around the interview process, new hire orientation, and the current staff.   Above all else, the book reinforces the fact that being the one to address and solve a difficult problem represents a real leadership and career opportunity.

Classic Sales Books

Most sales leaders manage staffs of varying degrees of experience - frequently from different generations.  They might work with a newer rep with only a year on the job or a thirty-year veteran. Each salesperson views their experience through a different lens.

Managers in this situation often ask for resources that can assist with sales staffs of varied tenure. My response:  have them read a classic book about sales. New reps get a "boot camp" experience with some basics. Experienced reps enjoy and benefit from the refresher course.

My list of classics includes:

The Little Red Book of Selling
by Jeffrey Gitomer

Sometimes called the book for those who don't like to read, Gitomer's book has twelve short, to the point chapters - and crazy cartoons. Part motivational and part instructional, every sales professional on your team will come away with an "Aha!" moment.

Secrets of Closing a Sale
by Zig Ziglar

Many successful salespeople and business leaders feel they "owe" Zig Ziglar.  Others think he sets the bar for the sales book genre. This is the first sales book many sales professional ever read. Sharing his own experiences as well as stressing professionalism, warmth, and integrity, Ziglar shows us all how to close a sale.

How to Master the Art of Selling
by Tom Hopkins

Sales professionals often mention being given this book as a gift by parents, mentors, and managers. Seasoned veterans re-read it on a regular basis. Specific, organized, and practical, the skills and strategies Hopkins mentions still translate in this modern day.

Perfect Selling
by Linda Richardson

Richardson isolates and focuses on the sales call itself, offering a straightforward five-step process:  

  • CONNECT with your customer immediately
  • EXPLORE customer needs thoroughly and quickly
  • LEVERAGE your solutions persuasively
  • RESOLVE your customer's questions and objections confidently
  • ACT when the time is right

Though many other aspects of selling are equally critical, the ability to orchestrate an effective and productive sales call remains key to success within the profession. 

The Psychology of Selling
by Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy never finished high school. He fell into sales accidentally, working long hours with limited success. Willing to learn from others, he listened and prospered. In this book he shares his strategies and techniques for repeatable, quantifiable, and sustainable success in sales.

Why These Books?

Potential objections across all generations include, "Some of these books were written before the Internet!" or "Many of these were published over a decade ago!" or "They wrote those books using typewriters!"

My response:  "Yes, I know. Isn't that great? Some of these sales titans sold millions of dollars in products and services before having the ability to research a potential buyer on LinkedIn or elsewhere. Imagine what you can learn."

Great books stand the test of time. Generations still read and enjoy classics from Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Generations of salespeople will benefit from reading and digesting these sales classics.

Miko Coffey

I'm a web problem-solver who helps people make the most of digital tools, techniques and practices. I've been working with websites for the last 17 years and I absolutely love it.

Take a Sales Book to the Beach for Some New Ideas

Salesforces find themselves playing catch-up and / or struggling to integrate technology into their current sales practices.  Should any tried and true systems or routines from the pre-social media days be preserved? Which might be considered obsolete or potentially damaging to a sales organization wanting to continue to thrive in this new era?  Is any particular technology an absolute must?

The books below offer company presidents and sales executives advice and tips for assimilating all the various apps, software and social media into their existing sales methodology. 

"Agile Selling: Get Up to Speed Quickly in Today's Ever-Changing Sales World" by Jill Konrath

Sales professionals understand the Internet changed buyer behavior.  If buyers want information, they go online and they're at least 50% of the way through the decision-making process when they call a potential vendor.  Sales reps need to know what to do about it.  Konrath, author of SNAP Selling and Selling to Big Companies, details what the modern buyer wants: an understanding of their business challenges, value at every interaction, and information they need the way they want to see it - quickly.  In addition, she gives reps the specifics for dealing with today's buyer, and how to get up to speed more quickly.  

"Sales 2.0: Improve Business Results Using Innovative Sales Practices and Technology" by Anneke Seley and Brent Holloway

Despite the explosion of online products and changing customer buying habits, the sales profession still lacks an innovative set of sales practices that work in the new reality. The high-tech revolution hasn't led to a revolution in sales strategies. Seley and Holloway use Sales 2.0 as an umbrella term to describe best practices for predictable, measurable selling that result in increased business.  The authors discuss inside sales and the web as a strategic entry point for Sales 2.0, interview companies currently practicing 2.0, and offer real-world suggestions for getting started.  

"The Challenger Sale" by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

Identifying salespeople as one of five types: hard worker, challenger, relationship builder, lone wolf and reactive problem solver, the author's extensive research champions the challenger as best suited to modern, complex, large scale business to business sales.  Rejecting the idea that salespeople build relationships and that sales follow, leading-edge decision makers and buyers value innovative and creative reps who tailor their message to a customer's specific needs.  A good relationship between seller and buyer develops as a result of this type of service.  Filled with case studies, interview tips and a coaching guide, this book helps companies identify and train reps to develop a challenger mind set.  

"Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers" by Robert Scobel and Shel Israel

While some books lay out a blueprint for putting together a social media program, Scobel and Israel focus on blogging.  The authors view traditional, old fashioned PR and marketing departments, with their focus on "talking at" people, as obsolete.  Blogs represent "two-way" marketing by allowing companies to interact directly with their customers. They maintain companies wanting to survive and thrive must adapt and integrate blogging into their marketing plan.  Today's customer insists on interacting directly with employees working for the companies from whom they purchase goods and services.  Chapters 10 and 11 entitled:  Doing it Wrong and Doing it Right offer specifics on a successful blogging program.

Miko Coffey

I'm a web problem-solver who helps people make the most of digital tools, techniques and practices. I've been working with websites for the last 17 years and I absolutely love it.

Take a Sales Management Book to the Beach

A client asks, "I am always trying to improve my sales management skills. Can you recommend some good books on the topic?"

Yes, I can. Whether you manage salespeople directly or supervise someone who does, it's always beneficial to read a book on the topic. These four are books I frequently recommend to my clients.

Proactive Sales Management: How to Lead, Motivate, and Stay Ahead of the Game by William "Skip" Miller

Skip Miller brings a fresh perspective to the nuts and bolts of sales management including hiring, setting objectives, creating territories, and running sales meetings. He plays the role of the tough but kind boss. Though everyone knows the importance of turning in sales forecasts and spending the majority of your time with your top producers, Miller stresses why it benefits the manager. The chapters on putting a sales representative on written warning and/or terminating them should be required reading for all sales managers. His writing is succinct and enjoyable because he sees the humor in managing the characters that can comprise a sales force.

Sales Coaching: Making the Great Leap from Sales Manager to Sales Coach by Linda Richardson

Linda Richardson agrees that a sales manager needs to perform certain tasks such as giving annual reviews, holding staff meetings, reviewing sales forecasts, and conducting post-sales call debriefings. She also knows that how you handle these tasks can greatly impact how the salesperson feels and behaves after the interaction. Published in 1996, there is nothing dated about this book. Richardson provides practical advice for setting the tone and asking the right kind of questions during meetings so that salespeople become more energized, self-reliant, and motivated.

Don't Fire Them, Fire Them Up: Motivate Yourself and Your Team by Frank Pacetta

Frank Pacetta is transferred to Cleveland, Ohio to manage one of the worst performing Xerox sales divisions in the country. Yes, he too talks about all the responsibilities that a sales manager has to handle, but he does so in the form of a really interesting story. How he goes about turning his sales group into top performers is a great read. Along the way, he covers some very difficult subjects that are not often written about, such as terminating people you really like, managing people you don't care for, and moving mediocre performers out the door.

Fundamentals of Sales Management for the Newly Appointed Sales Manager by Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz tackles a topic that many people find difficult to explain: the differences between being a top performing sales representative and an effective, top producing sales manager. Schwartz explains why so many sales representatives struggle with the transition from sales to management. He covers the basics of the job very well. Neither entry level nor dumbed down, many seasoned sales managers have told me that they got a lot out of reading this book. It should be required reading, however, for any new sales manager and for anyone who has just promoted a former sales representative into a sales management position.

I recommend these books; they are full of valuable information as well as being interesting to read. I hope you enjoy them and welcome your comments on these or other sales books you have found useful. Have a great summer!