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Three Ways to Practice Listening as a Business Skill

June 25th, 2015

Watching with your ears pays off in improved business relationships

When I lived in Latin America, frequent trips to government offices to keep my visa status updated meant a lot of bus travel. I learned to close my eyes as soon as I got into my seat. By being “asleep” I could avoid any unwanted attention I might cause by looking around. It also developed my listening skills. Watching with my ears taught me to observe my surroundings and still focus on information about my stop or connection.

This came in handy during an especially crowded second-class bus trip during Easter week. My seatmate was a woman traveling to market with a live chicken in her lap. I can still hear that chicken’s off-beat clucking as Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” played through scratchy speakers. Despite all those layers of distraction, I still managed to hear the driver announce my stop.

About forty-five percent of a typical business day is spent listening, so watching with your ears is not only a smart travel strategy. It’s also a valuable skill for business owners and salespeople. Here are three ways to practice watching with your ears to maximize the value of every business interaction.

Asking and Listening: A former colleague of mine kept a roll of duct tape on his desk. It was his reminder to ask questions, shut his mouth and listen. Listening starts with asking open-ended questions that begin with what, how, who or where. In a business negotiation, examples of open-ended questions might be: 

  • How would you describe your current (workflow/maintenance/customer service) process?
  • What types of issues have surfaced in your current process?
  • What impact have those issues had on your (customers/employees/partners)?

The key is to ask, and then listen without interrupting. Practicing this skill with a friend or colleague can help you to notice and modify your interruption tendencies.

Listening through Layers: Listening through layers is a technique that can help you to uncover underlying issues or motivations. Try listening through three primary layers: listen for facts first, then thoughts and beliefs, and then for feelings. Often you’ll discover that you or others have made assumptions at one or more of these layers. Listening through them helps to clarify what’s important to each person and help to identify the next steps you can take together. 

Taking Action after Listening: Listening is half of the process. Identifying the next steps to a common goal is the other half.  Asking additional, open-ended questions can be useful in reaching workable future steps, such as:

  • What would you think if…?
  • How does _______ sound?
  • What are the options?
  • Who can help with that?

It’s not always easy to step back from telling or interrupting. Perfecting your listening skills takes a little practice, but it’s worth the payoff in avoiding in tense negotiations and improving the quality of your business relationships.

Work Yourself Out of A Slump

June 9th, 2015

Ever experienced a sales or business slump? Congratulations – you’re normal.

Everyone has a slump now and then. In business, just as in any other sport, turning around a slump starts in your head. Yogi Berra’s insights are equally true of a business slump:  “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”

Moving out of a slump quickly requires mental work first, then action. So take Yogi’s advice and clear your thinking. These steps can help.

Remember Your Successes

A slump is temporary. Keep that in mind by remembering your peak times. Make a list of your top five sales or business successes. Replay how you felt and thought during each success. For example, several years ago I closed a major sale to a global beverage manufacturer over the phone. I never met the executive who made the buy decision in person, and that sale is one of my peak times. Make your own success list and review it periodically throughout your day.

Think Small: Set Micro-Goals

Take your thinking down a level or two – or three. A slump in sales or business can cause you to think about missing your quota and losing revenue, or the financial consequences of quota and revenue loss. That’s thinking big in a downward spiral. Save your big thinking for opportunities and growth. In a slump, it’s best to think small.

Instead, set and accomplish micro-goals. Your goal for a three-hour morning timeframe might be to draft and send five emails and make ten follow-up calls. Document your results, and consider testing one adjustment in your next round prospecting or follow-up. Focus on setting and achieving your micro-goals until you begin to see positive results.

Get Four Points Every Day

A slump can lead to desperate and unproductive action. Jeffrey Fox, author of “How to Become a Rainmaker” (a classic must-read), suggests this simple daily strategy: Allocate one point for getting a referral to a prospect; two points for setting a meeting with a prospect, three points for meeting with a prospect (whether that’s in person, over the phone or via the web), and four points for closing a sale or taking an action leading to a sale. If you consistently focus on getting at least four points a day, you’ll build positive micro-results, which can lead to bigger, positive outcomes.

Get Back to Basics

When a ball player experiences a slump, a coach reviews mechanics. If you don’t have a business or sales coach, ask a friend or trusted business associate for insight. For example, if your target customer is an attorney, invite an attorney friend or two to lunch. Explore their perspectives on your product or service, how they perceive its value and how they respond best to inquiries. An informal lunch meeting also provides you with an opportunity to ask one of the most valuable business development questions: “Who else should I be talking to?”

In baseball as in business, a hitting streak is just one swing away. Replay your successes, set micro-goals, and focus on the basics – and your batting average will improve.