How Do You Gain Trust? By Active Listening

Do you recognize the following situation? A week ago, you had an absolutely brilliant call with a prospect. They seemed to be in a very demanding situation and fortunately, their requirements were precisely what your software can provide. The prospect seemed enthusiastic (of course they are!) and you saw a large deal showing up on the horizon. As easy as one-two-three. However, today you received an email from this prospect saying that they are no longer interested in your product and will continue their evaluation with three of your competitors. WT* happened here?

Recent research by Salesforce (published in September 2020, click here) shows that B2B buyers expect sales reps to understand their business, but the reality is that buyers perceive that less than 50% of reps actually do. They expect the sales rep to provide a solution, but the fact is that buyers feel that 63% focus on their products. Additionally, while 86% of all buyers expect a trusted adviser relationship with sales reps, they perceive a transactional focus instead.

And this could easily have been the case in the situation described above. If clients feel that you don’t understand their business and problems fully, when you are pushing your products or services and you are only focused on getting the deal closed, chances are high that you will not be selected. Especially if the prospect has met with your competition and feels they have a stronger connection with them!

The key question is, how do you make sure that your prospect knows that you understand their business fully, that you provide a solution suited to their specific needs, and perceive you as a trusted advisor for them? You need to show that you listen and understand them.

So let us go back to the initial situation and the first (absolutely brilliant) call you had with the prospect. In the first conversations, your goals should be to gather information from your prospect and build a relationship. Many sales teams interview clients with a focus on their products and targets. They keep talking and/or asking questions geared towards their product functionality. Sometimes it feels to the prospect that is an interrogation! “Where were you on the night of December 13…?!”

Sales teams often find it challenging to give pure attention to their customers and prospects without sticking their own opinions in between. They are on a mission to sell their products. If you do this, your attention is not on the prospect and their situation, but you are focused on yourself and what you want to achieve. And clients will notice that. This doesn’t help establish a relationship and it won’t help you improve your win rate.

Second position

When interacting with prospects, the biggest problem is that sales teams focus on what they want to get out of the meeting – the information they need. Too often, the attention is on yourself, what you feel, think, find your objectives, your product. This is what we call the 1st position. The opposite is being attentive to the other person – what they say, think, feel, find – their objectives. We call this the 2nd position. In the Great Demo! methodology, we emphasize speaking in ‘you-mode’. This pushes you into the second position. Having your attention on the other person (in this case, your prospect) is crucial to building a relationship of trust. The client lives in another world and you need to enter that world to propose the appropriate solution in the best way. They have a job to do (and preferably want to do it most easily), targets to achieve (and need insights into the status), a boss to satisfy (and need to inform them about the results), etc. How can you achieve this?

Listen to understand

The first step is to listen to understand the perspective of the prospect. As Steven Covey puts it nicely in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People…  “Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”. To do this, you need to drop your agenda, objectives, product, goals, sales cycle, and focus on the relationship. Carefully listen to your prospect from the 2nd position and mirror their behavior. Drop your objectives, for now, and show genuine interest in the other person. Focus on the person and listen. Listen to what they say and to how they say it. Make the prospect feel that they have your undivided attention.

It can be challenging listening without sharing your opinions and your brilliant ideas (of course). You might feel like losing control. So, how do you listen well? Here are some simple tips:

  • Make eye-contact. And when meeting virtually, turn on the camera and look into that green webcam light.
  • Smile (if appropriate) and show matching expressions on your face.
  • Seal your lips, make notes instead of talking.
  • Nod, offer the occasional “hm” and say brief words, “yes”, “I can see that”, “sounds good” to stimulate talking.

Mirroring: be careful

A few words on mirroring. Mirroring is essential for you to feel what the prospect feels, to put yourself in the 2nd position. That’s why we suggest reflecting at the start of the call. But, contradictory to what you expect, research shows that mirroring prospects doesn’t help to close deals. More deals were closed when the prospect was mirroring the salesperson! Clients need to follow your lead and you’ll notice this when they start mirroring you.

Prospects typically expect to get value out of conversations with vendors. And this is where the shift in mirroring takes place during the conversation. Our recommendation is to focus on reflecting the prospect at the start of the conversation, at least during the first 5 minutes. Then, let it go, do what feels right. Your instinct will be good. Depending on where you are in the conversation and how things go, you will be matching the prospect (to better understand them), or the prospect will be mirroring you when you are leading the conversation.

Listening and mirroring are not so difficult. Most sales teams do this well. But why do most conversations feel like an interrogation? Because sales teams ask a question, listen in silence, and ask the next question. So, what is missing? Most sales teams don’t paraphrase during the conversation. They only give a summary of the entire discussion at the end of the meeting.

Paraphrasing is crucial during a conversation. First things first, most people are primarily interested in themselves, and your prospects are as well. Paraphrasing, a pointed summary of the essence of what was conveyed, tells the customer: “Hey, I heard you, I am with you, you and your opinions/insights are important”. One of the phrases often used is, “You are not alone…”. The result is that the person feels understood and will therefore more easily open up and share more information. The client will also become more aware of the severity of their pain points and problems when they hear someone else saying it out loud. It hurts and this helps to make them aware of the changes needed.

Paraphrasing on content, emotions, and thoughts

Paraphrasing content is to reflect what someone is saying verbatim. It requires good listening but is relatively simple. When paraphrasing the emotions and thoughts, you must listen carefully to how someone says things to recognize the underlying emotion.

Let me give an example:

You are talking to the CIO, Sarah C., of one of your biggest prospects. You are in the last stages of your sales cycle, with one competitor left. You call Sarah and she says: “We have had many conversations with the team, and they are all convinced that your SaaS solution would be best”.

What should be your response?  When paraphrasing the content, you briefly state the essentials of the conversation. You use terms that connect to the prospect. Paraphrasing is not a repetition of what the other person said. That would slow down the conversation and may be perceived as a “sales” technique.

If you use the prospect’s exact words, you show that you can reproduce them but not really understand them. If you listen well, you paraphrase often, and you use your own words. That is effective paraphrasing. It’s essential that you ask for confirmation. You can do this by raising your voice at the end of the sentence, so it automatically becomes a question. Or you can also explicitly ask, “Is my understanding correct?” and listen to the answer. With a “yes”, you can continue with a question or a response. Actually, a “yes” by the client has two functions: Every “yes” reinforces the prospect’s feeling that you understand them, and you are building up credit, building a relationship of trust. Stephen Covey calls this the “emotional bank account”.

In our example, you might say: “Your organization is convinced of our cloud solution. Is this correct?”. You might think ‘yes’, and mentally start drafting the contract. However, the CIO will likely stop talking. Why is this?

If you listen carefully to how the CIO talks and look at the expressions on her face, you’ll notice that she means something else. When strong emotions are involved, paraphrasing on content only hurts your cause. When a prospect is unhappy, disappointed, or even hostile, you appear detached when you only paraphrase the content, and it will likely not be heard anyway. When paraphrasing the emotion, you reflect the underlying emotion in the conversation. You often sense when someone says something that is different from what they are saying literally.

When summarizing the emotion, use short sentences to respond to the other person quickly. You always paraphrase by emotion from the 2nd position, empathizing with the other person. From the 1st position, your “understanding of emotion” will be counterproductive. So, be careful with using the sentence: “I understand that you are worried, angry, irritated”. This often evokes resistance: “You don’t understand at all!” This usually happens when you paraphrase too quickly without having heard the whole story and when you don’t paraphrase the content.

Let’s go back to our example (we are showing how CIO Sarah emphasizes words in capitals and articulates them with a flat loud voice):

“We have had MANY conversations with the team. THEY are all convinced that your SaaS solution would be the best”. Sarah frowns and looks down.

Now, you’d better paraphrase the emotion, you could say: “You don’t sound convinced of our cloud solution”.

Now Sarah feels understood. She gets the feedback that you listened well. The CIO might now start talking about objections. If it appears that the objections are related to a cloud solution in general, you can discuss the pros and cons and help her understand better.

The third level of paraphrasing is on thoughts. When you paraphrase thoughts, you reflect on what the other person is thinking. This is the most challenging (and risky) way to paraphrase, because you assume what is in their heads. If you do this right, the CIO feels completely understood. You might say something like this: ‘And you have some concerns about how a SaaS solution is going to fit in your current landscape, haven’t you?’

Always check if your assumption is right.

One question at a time

So, you have listened well and you paraphrased, so what is next? Now you can ask one more question – then seal your lips and go into listening again. You can ask a clarifying question (“Can you give an example?”) or an expansion question (“What would be the effect of this on the recruitment process?”). It depends on the thread and your understanding of appropriate follow-up questions. If you are truly present with the other person, the question will pop up naturally. You continue where the other stopped. When you can ask great questions, the prospect will feel that you are really interested. Moreover, you get more information, which helps you understand the prospect’s situation better, making it easier to connect, etc. Please remember to give your client time to think about the answer. Slow down and sit back in listening mode.

To be able to ask great questions, it’s crucial you have the right attitude. It is important to feel a genuine interest for the prospect and drop any judgment about their decisions or the direction of the conversation. This is not as easy as it sounds. Your own interest in the conversation takes over all too often and that leads to ineffective questions. So, stay in the second position, as well, when asking questions.

There are many pitfalls when asking questions. Here is a shortlist of the most common:

  • Checklist-questions: You have a “checklist” in your mind, and you work through it from top to bottom. It is important to go with the flow.
  • “Yes, but…” questions: Questions starting with “but” or “yes, but” indicate that you disagree with the other person. These are typical questions asked from the 1st position.
  • “Leading the witness”: Some questions are opinions, advice or solutions in disguise: “Wouldn’t it be more convenient to have a mobile application for this?” The person asking the question means that they think it would be more convenient to have a mobile application for the functionality. You might think it is clever to package your product as a question, but your prospect will perceive this as you trying to sell your solution and putting words in their mouth.

 Summarize

After a while, you feel that you have gathered a lot of information and you would like to continue with a different topic, or the meeting comes to an end. This is when you summarize what you have learned from the prospect’s situation, including possible next steps. Remember to stay in 2nd position during your summary!

Sales conversations with prospects should be about establishing relationships because people buy from people they trust. During your conversations, you learn about their situation, their pain points, their vision. This happens much easier when you drop your agenda and give the client your undivided attention. Nothing is more important than a prospect experiencing you working to understand their business, to provide them with a tailored solution, and be perceived as a trusted advisor. Just give it a try…!

Do you feel you need to improve your discovery (and listening) skills? I am happy to discuss how you can gain trust and win more deals. Drop me an e-mail: natasja@thedemoscene.com

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