Ben Zoldan: The Power of Listening

Last Updated Aug 27, 2011 12:34 PM EDT

While sales trainers always talk about the importance of listening, they almost never explain how to do it effectively. Well, it turns out that listening is the most important part of telling a compelling story. It sounds backwards, but it's true! To help you understand why, here's an interview with sales trainer Ben Zoldan. I think you'll find it a real "ear-opener."
  • Geoffry James: Tell me a little about yourself.
  • Ben Zoldan: When I graduated college in June 1993, I had no idea what was next. Sales seemed logical and I found a company that took a chance on me. In the beginning, selling was purely just a numbers game. After a couple of years, I got promoted into sales management and went from "hero to zero" over night. I learned, first hand, how difficult it was to get the majority of salespeople to do what comes natural to the very "few." In 1998, I had the good fortune of attending Mike Bosworth's Solution Selling training, but it wasn't until 2002 that we began our partnership together.
  • GJ: You've been a sales trainer for some years. What made you change your approach?
  • BZ: A few years ago, I was at a meeting with a company that measured the effectiveness of sales teams. They revealed research showing that the old 80/20 rule (80 percent of the sales are made by 20 percent of the sales team) had gotten worse, and that now it was 87 percent of the sales are made by 13 percent of the sales team! We can trace almost the entire sales training industry back to the 1970s, so that's nearly 40 years of effort, and the situation that sales training was supposed to address (the productivity of the average sales rep) appeared to have made the situation worse!
  • GJ: That must have been a real eye-opener.
  • BZ: You bet. I really believed I knew how to make sales professionals more effective. You know the routine: ask questions, build a solution, follow a process, establish value, negotiate and close. I began to realize, however, that this way of thinking about selling only worked for some people. In fact, many of the people who tried to use the traditional selling training approaches, simply gave up after a couple of weeks, because it didn't pay off. So I began to reflect on my personal experiences about the sales that I'd made in the past, and began talking to the people who I've met and trained, so see what it was that distinguished the most successful ones from the least successful. It forced me to really rethink the question: "What is it that makes great salespeople great?" And that led me to look at what made people successful in other professions that require trust, relationship building, any profession that requires people to influence people: teachers, lawyers, therapists, and so forth.
  • GJ: What did you discover?
  • BZ: That what separates the very best in all these professions: what makes great leaders great, what makes great CEOs great, what makes great teachers great, what makes great salespeople great, is how they convey ideas in a way that inspire others to think and feel different, as well as their ability to listen and through listening, create a real connection. I found this in every case: the distinguishing factor is really the way the very few send out messages and the way they take in messages. In the case of sales professionals, I know of so many highly-successful ones who had no process at all, and didn't follow ANY sales methodology. But they earn the business because they were able to form an emotional connection with their buyer, and could inspire actions.
  • GJ: You mentioned that you had examples from your own experience?
  • BZ: Yes. I started my selling career in Information Technology industry and the biggest sale I ever made was when I was 24 years old and brand-new to selling. I didn't know all that much about sales process or anything like that, nor was I by any stretch of the imagination an expert in my field, in fact, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to get the business. I remember sitting in room with my competitors and realizing that they were all more tenured, better-dressed, i just assumed they were more competent and qualified. In fact, I was so sure I was going to lose that I was treated the opportunity solely as a way to learn the ropes about selling to big companies. Well, turns out that I won the business. I was so surprised, that after I got the contract, I went to the CIO and asked why he had awarded me the business. He said that I was the one that he felt was not trying to sell him and I didn't pretend to know all the answers. In fact, I remember several meetings where I would sit in his office and I would listen to him share stories. At the time I didn't know it, but he was letting me into his world. I did the same.
  • GJ: Are you saying that you shouldn't be informed about your offering?
  • BZ: Not at all. But if we get so focused on competencies and lose the personal connection, our expertise can become the enemy. In the experience I just shared, I remember sharing personal stories, things form college, from my own childhood, embarrassing moments from my past, flaws, all the things outside the realm of a so-called "professional" dialog. But now when I reflect back, it was when I was willing to open up about my inexperience, my humanness, my passions, my beliefs - since those were the only things I had at the time, that led directly to my bond with this senior executive. And because I thought I had nothing to offer, at the time, all I could do then was just listen. We created a real bond, and it had nothing to do with the kind of techniques that are taught in sales training courses.
  • GJ: What about sales books?
  • BZ: Interesting you'd ask that. When I figured out that listening was one of the key ingredients to relationships, and really the requisite to someone, especially a buyer, opening themselves up to a salesperson, I was pretty certain there would be plenty of books on the subject. So I went to my local Barnes and Noble and went into the business section and started looking at tables of content to find chapters about listening. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So while I'm wondering why not, I look across the aisle and see the self-help section and there's a huge volume titled "Listening". So I go over to that section and discover that there are dozens of books devoted to listening as a way to form better human connections. I was embarrassed, really, that we as an industry totally ignored one of the most foundational skills necessary to relationships. We all know inherently that selling requires relationship building and, other than statements like "you should be a good listener" there was nothing that taught salespeople how to actually listen properly!
  • GJ: But don't therapists ask questions, too?
  • BZ: Yes, but in an entirely different way. In the sales training world, we've tended to treat listening as a part of questioning, and a rather unimportant part at that. Most of the time, salespeople are just listening for a cue that will prove that the prospect is qualified to buy. In the world of therapy, its reverse: questioning is a part of listening, with listening being by far the most important part. I had no idea what real listening was until I went outside my own comfort zone: the sales industry, to learn how other disciplines were teaching listening.
  • GJ: What does listening have to do with storytelling?
  • BZ: I was trying to figure this out for a while. My gut told me there were these two underused and underdeveloped communication skills: listening and story telling, and it took us a while to figure out the direct connection. To understand this, you first have to understand how sales training got it all wrong. Most sales training methods work off some kind of script, usually consisting of a questioning model, for instance, "open-ended" questions, followed by directed, closed questions, etc,, but the emphasis is all upon leading the prospect to see a need for the offering. In most cases, salespeople had difficulty questioning a buyer, because they came across as disingenuous; most of the time as an interrogator. I could tell you that for years, I abused questions, because that is all I knew at the time, and the result was, "stop asking me so many questions and show me what you've got."
  • GJ: What, exactly, are you teaching, then?
  • BZ: We are not teaching salespeople to use story telling as the ends, rather a salesperson's stories are the means to get a buyer to open up and share their stories in return. Everyone wants to tell their story, if only given a chance. The challenge is that most salespeople, most all of us, are innately poor listeners and never allow people the space and attention needed. We want to use stories, to get another person's story, yet to do that, we must first learn to really listen, not just with our ears, but to body language, what their saying with things other than just words. People tell their stories with more than words.
  • GJ: Can you give me an example?
  • BZ: The best salesperson I've ever came across was the CEO at one of my clients, global networking company. He never attended my trainings himself. He was so good that he didn't need our stuff. I had the good fortune of going on a couple of sales calls with him. I remember sitting next to him in awe and thinking, "man, i want to be like him." I want to teach what he's doing. I remember vividly how intent he was to watch and observe the row of prospects on the other side of the table and with such ease, he got them to open up, unlike the average salespeople. When one of the prospects would bring up a point, he wouldn't jump on the answer, rather it seemed as if he was following the trail of evidence. He did so little. He was so patient and i remember thinking how caring he seemed to be. His messages were nothing but little anecdotes and stories that he pulled from his personal life, that would illustrate a point he was trying to make. He did nothing else: he listened and shared stories.
  • GJ: How does this work in a real sales situation?
  • BZ: The idea here is to get prospects to open themselves up and reveal something about themselves; we call that Story Tending. To get someone to reveal something about themselves, especially a flaw, a problem, a mistake, we must first initiate the dialogue by admitted our humanness first. We teach salespeople, any professional who needs to influence others, to be able to organize their ideas through story, for instance, before I tell you how great our solution is, let me share with you the journey, it always wasn't the case. We teach salespeople how to communicate these stories authentically and passionately, and then how to listen to another person's stories: about themselves, about their business, etc, with the intent to truly understand vs. with the intent to sell something.
  • GJ: So listening is the key to selling?
  • BZ: Of course. People's stories, when we really listen, will not just tell us about that prospect, but help us understand that person's values, beliefs, ideas - the things that drive real decisions. I used to believe that selling was solving problems, finding solutions. My paradigm has totally shifted. There are so many instances when selling is not based on solving a problem, but something bigger, maybe selling is about inspiring, connecting. The reason that we tell our stories is in order to show the prospect that we're human, to allow ourselves to be human and not just the company figure head. And, really Stories are contagious. A story will typically beget another story. What a great state for a sales message, whereas facts, features, statistics, etc promote an endless appetite for more information about that information and details about more details.
  • GJ: And that's what you teach in StoryLeaders?
  • BZ: Exactly. We have a way to help people (not just sales professionals) create and tell their own stories more effectively, and a way to train people to listen more effectively to the stories that others share in return. The discussion about buying emerges from the relationship, rather than the way that things are normally done, where the relationship emerges (if it does at all) in spite of the attempt to sell a product.
  • GJ: That's a pretty radical concept.
  • BZ: It's been life-changing for me. I always enjoyed a career in sales, but selling now is so much bigger than I once thought. The real discipline is developing connectedness, working on communication skills, gaining clarity on my own stories, acquiring the skills to listen and observe others. It hasn't been easy for me, but I would much rather me on this path, than that of monitoring my pipeline, forecast and W2 every year. I have learned that results follow when we know why we are doing what we are doing.
IMPORTANT: Enjoy this post? Then you'll probably enjoy my new book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.
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