An old adage by the Greek philosopher Epictetus may arguably be one of the best pieces of advice for closing more B2B sales in the information age: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Sales Hacker analyzed more than 25,000 B2B sales conversations using artificial intelligence and discovered a direct correlation between listening time and closing rates. “Top salespeople spend most of their time listening rather than pitching,” writes Chris Orlob. “In fact, increasing the prospect’s talk time from 22% to 33% significantly boosts opportunity win-rates .” According to the research, the average B2B sales rep spends between 65-75% of a call talking and only 25-35% listening. However, the golden ratio of talk time to listening time is 43% to 57%.
But even that’s not good enough for Rory J. Clark, the creator of Focus Selling. “In sales interactions, a great guideline to follow to ensure that great listening is occurring is to keep the send/receive ratio at 10% send and 90% receive,” Clark said. In other words, sales people should talk 10% of the time—asking questions and restating what they’ve heard the prospect tell them—and listen 90% of the time.
That may sound extreme, but it’s easy to understand why listening helps close more sales when you consider modern communication habits. Over the past ten years, we’ve increased our communication channels to include email, voice mail, text messages, and social media. But, Clark asserts, these are not true communications. Each outgoing message is a monologue that the recipient interprets, he explains. “We’ve edited all of the intimacy out of our interactions with other people, and it’s perverted the intimacy in our own relationships,” Clark said. “We don’t listen to people.”
As a result, listening has a significant impact on the sales process. “Listening is the most intimate gift given to another person. How often are others so attentive, you actually feel heard? It is as rare as ‘hen’s teeth’ to experience salespeople who actually listen,” Clark said.
Most people are accustomed to listening only for a chance to talk, so it may take effort to practice restraint and be a good listener. However, it helps if prospects are given “permission” to talk. Clark advises salespeople to ask questions for meaning. In other words, he says to ask one question, such as, “What are your goals for this project?” and then to follow up by asking them to elaborate on that question three times.
“If you ask one question after another in rapid succession, you get superficial details and facts, and you walk away with nothing,” Clark said. Repeating the same question encourages prospects to think past the “company line” and share meaningful information that can be useful to you as well as cathartic for your prospect.
“When senders feel heard, they let their guard down, and it’s the exact situation you’re after in sales interactions. The sender tells the salesperson what they want, and when it’s appropriate, the salesperson tells the potential customer how they can help,” Clark said.
Taking sales calls face-to-face can also encourage prospects to talk while making for more effective listening. “If I had my choice between face-to-face and phone, I’d take face-to-face every time because people will do things on the phone with you that they will not do face-to-face,” Clark said.
On a voice-only call, prospects are more likely to gruffly hang up on you, multi-task or become distracted by incoming “monologues” (i.e. emails). When talking face-to-face, such as over a video call, prospects are more inclined to focus on you—and vice versa. The ability to make eye contact can enable you to establish trust more easily and quickly.
In addition, both the salesperson and prospect can “read” visual cues that facilitate deeper conversation. You can use body language, like leaning slightly forward, and facial expressions to communicate that you’re truly listening to the prospect. Simply pausing before responding to the prospect’s comment can encourage him to talk further. And because the prospect can see you nod and make eye contact, he knows that you haven’t diverted your attention.
Given the rise of digital communications, particularly in business, people crave true human connections, and the desire to be heard is a critical component. When salespeople listen, they do much more than get meaningful information that’s useful for closing a sale—they make a connection.