Listening is not usually considered a primary skill when selling a job. Talking is what’s important. You have to express yourself well, if not eloquently, and be able to present your message persuasively to the customer.

But if you don’t listen first, how do you know what the customer really wants? Or what they really need?

How do you know what features are important to the customer? And what features aren’t important?

Your customers have information they can give you. They have opinions and perceptions. Maybe even some misconceptions. To get at this “data” you need to engage in true two-way communication. That means you have to listen before you talk — really listen.

A customer can tell when you half-listen, when you jump in quickly with a retort before they have a chance to finish what they’re saying. Not paying full attention and/or interrupting tells the customer that you’re not really engaging in a dialogue, you’re reciting from a script. You’re giving him or her the same old line you gave the previous customer, and the one before that.

Basically, you’re not being customer-focused.

Somewhere along the line, too many of those who sell products and services have drifted from, “The customer is always right,” to, “The customer has to be tolerated.” So salespeople don’t listen; they patronize. They don’t respect customers; they painfully endure their presence.

Just a little respect

If you don’t respect customers, they’ll walk. Maybe not immediately, but soon. And they’ll walk to the first competitor that does show them respect.

Listening may not seem like much. It may not seem necessary. But it can make a big difference because it establishes a friendly atmosphere and a rapport with the customer. It shows you care about what they say.

Something as simple as maintaining eye contact and nodding when the customer makes a point helps you develop a connection that can’t be achieved with a long monologue. A smile also doesn’t hurt.

Listen completely to any objections the customer has and address them completely. Don’t dodge or ignore. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know, and say you’ll get back to them. Then look it up, or ask a coworker, and get back to them.

In addition to focusing on the customer’s words, also pay attention to their nonverbal cues. If they start to cross their arms in front of them and lean back, you may have an objection to overcome or a clarification that needs to be made. If they start turning sideways in their chair, you may have overstayed your welcome and need to gracefully end the discussion (perhaps with a promise to send more information).

If you want to experience the power of listening up close and personal, try coaching a youth sports team. If the kids listen to you, you’ll see some semblance of a team out there. If they don’t listen, you’ll see everybody going every which way and it’ll be hard to determine just what sport they’re playing.

The payoff

It’s not easy being a good listener. But it can pay off. Last June I finally bought a new central air system and furnace for my house. The contractors that my wife and I talked to were experienced professionals. They kept their appointments and were courteous.

The contractor who got the job was, in my opinion, the best listener. He seemed friendlier; he seemed genuinely in tune with what we wanted. He answered questions thoroughly. We felt we could trust him.

His price actually was slightly higher. But we felt he’d give us a quality installation and quality service.

We went with the listener.

That’s right, Lou. You have to listen to learn.

And when a diehard University of Michigan football fan starts quoting a former Notre Dame football coach, you know I’ve got to be dead serious.