Active Listening: Your Sales Superpower

Selling Skills | Building Relationships

There are many stereotypes of what makes a great sales rep. Outgoing, smooth talker, able to present their solution pitch flawlessly to the client. Confident – sometimes, too confident. You know the profile, right?

But there’s a key attribute that’s not always associated with high-performing salespeople, and it might surprise you.

The best reps know when to shut up and listen.

According to an analysis of thousands of sales calls done by Gong Labs in 2018, top sales performers have a talk-to-listen ratio of 43:57. That’s right – they listen more than they talk.

In this study, top performers were selling an average of 120% above their quota – and they did it by focusing less on presenting technical features and specs and more on getting customers to open up about their problems.

In a separate analysis of over 800,000 recorded sales meetings in 2021, Gong found that sales reps who used slides during their first discovery meetings had a 17% lower likelihood of achieving a follow-up call.

That’s not because slides are inherently bad, but they signal that the meeting will be a presentation, not a conversation. Most buyers want to be heard, and reps need to identify and understand the problem first before telling the buyer how their solution can help.

Sales reps ask 21% fewer questions and their average monologues are 25% longer when they use slides in discovery calls. Slides may feel like a comforting prop, but they’re actually a barrier to active listening.

The good news for those who aren’t naturals at active listening is that this skill can be practiced and improved.

How to Become a Better Active Listener

The ability to truly hear the other person’s perspective while leaving your own agenda on hold long enough to understand what’s being said takes a great deal of self-awareness and practice. Too often, salespeople listen to hear what they want to hear. Or they listen only long enough to get the information they can use to support their agenda, not to really understand what the customer is trying to tell them.

These four behaviors are central to being a good active listener on sales calls:

  1. Listen with the intent to understand. This means you as a seller are changing your focus from pitching your product to genuinely trying to understand the customer’s situation and needs.
  2. Focus completely on listening. The word "active" means you are so engaged that it doesn’t even occur to interrupt the client, check your email or do anything else. No multitasking!
  3. Ask questions to understand. This serves several purposes. First, it demonstrates your interest. Second, it allows you to clear up any incorrect assumptions or misconceptions. Third, it can take the conversation to a deeper, more thoughtful level.
  4. Summarize what this means. It’s one thing to be able to repeat the speaker’s key points. But reflecting on the speaker’s meaning makes them feel heard and understood – and strengthens your relationship with them in the long run.

Improving active listening skills – and putting them into practice – can help boost your team’s quota attainment. And, as a bonus, they’re skills that will serve your sales reps in every aspect of their professional and personal lives.

Learn how to transition star sales reps into high-performing sales managers

About Ray Makela

Ray Makela is CEO and Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group (SRG). He oversees all client engagements as well as serves as a senior facilitator on sales management, coaching, negotiation and sales training workshops. Ray has over 20 years of management, consulting, and sales experience and writes frequently on best practices for coaching and developing sales teams.