Best Sales Coaching Advice Ever: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Easier said than done.

Full disclosure: I was about to post this article but before I did, I re-read it one more time. And after I did I couldn’t help but think that I should follow my own advice.

I recently had an encounter with a prospect where I did none of the things I’m about to suggest, so with the caveat of “do as I tell you not as I did”, let’s begin.

I’ve added some comments in parentheses in the rewrite highlighting where I messed up, so if this reads more like a journal entry than a post, forgive me.

The maxim “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” comes from Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. It is probably the single most important lesson a salesperson needs to learn and that you as a sales manager need to coach to.

The key point Covey made is that most people’s primary communication objective is to have their ideas and opinions be understood and accepted (yep, did that) rather than attempting to uncover and appreciate the other person’s perspective (definitely f’d this one up). The problem is rooted in a self-centered mindset (I love my ideas and want you to love them too!) and poor listening skills (does listening to myself count?). Here is what Covey had to say about this:

If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. (I lost him at “hello”. In retrospect, there were a number of verbal – what was being said and vocal – how it was being said – clues at the outset of the conversation that provided insights into his disposition).

So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. (I was more focused on my desired outcomes than his).

Dilemma: Conflicting seller-buyer predispositions

If we contextualize Covey’s advice to the field of sales, there are two critical and conflicting complications that need to be considered and addressed to improve the effectiveness of sales conversations, especially during an initial call.

  • Seller is predisposed to pitch. Most salespeople chomp at the bit for the first opportunity to pontificate in great detail about their solution’s superiority and typically do so by dragging the hapless buyer through a 16-slide company pitch. (Mine was only five slides but had the same effect).
  • Buyer is predisposed to not reveal. Most buyers are not eager to reveal information that might be used against them, or that might be considered confidential, or that airs their company’s dirty laundry to a complete stranger with questionable intentions. (Can’t blame him).

Why are buyers so reluctant to trust your salespeople?

Forrester’s “Why Don’t Buyers Want to Meet Your Salespeople?” study found that executive buyers consider only 20% of the salespeople they meet with successful in achieving the buyer’s expectations and creating value during conversations.

I had the opportunity to discuss this with the analyst who authored the study. I found it hard to believe that after a couple of decades of getting bashed over the head with the concept of customer-centric selling, the modern salesperson had not boosted their emotional quotient.

Here’s what your buyers told Forrester they think of your salespeople and why they don’t want to meet with them, let alone open up to them. Forrester asked 299 business and IT decision-makers: Thinking of a typical meeting with a vendor salesperson, how would you characterize their agenda in your interactions?

  • They only want to tell me about their products and services – 24% (check)
  • They listen for a keyword or two so they can launch into a prepared pitch about how they relate to that topic – 39% (check)
  • They are legitimately interested in how their products or services would work in our situation – 17% (if I was I didn’t show it)
  • They try to understand our challenges and offer suggestions (even if they don’t sell those products or services) for us to address them – 6% (didn’t do this)
  • They are genuinely interested in partnering with us to make sure our initiative is successful – 15% (didn’t do this)

Not a pretty picture. Nearly two-thirds said salespeople are, in essence, “showing up and throwing up” (I think I heard the prospect mutter, “Clean up on aisle three.”).

How can you help your salespeople make a better first impression that overcomes buyer skepticism?

In order for buyers to open up during their first interaction with your salespeople, they need to trust that your reps and, by extension, your company have the concern, credibility, and capability to help them. To create this buyer-seller dynamic, coach your salespeople to:

  • Be attentive to and respectful of the other person’s preferred communication style.
  • Not just speak less and listen more, but listen better through the use of active listening.
  • Not just listen better, but question better by asking insightful questions that demonstrate an interest in learning he buyer’s key initiatives, challenges, and desired outcomes.
  • Ask hard questions softly to surface the risk and cost of leaving a critical situation unattended.
  • Hold off on solution recommendations until they have first uncovered and developed the full set of the buyer’s critical goals, issues, and initiatives.
  • Share stories that tout not your success but that of your customers.
  • Rely less on presentations and more on conversations.

Good advice. I wish I had followed it. The key lesson from my stumble was to before a call simply remind myself to approach the meeting with an open heart and mind. And during a call, to focus less on persuasion and more on understanding. Covey was right: intent matters.

I’m not the perfect messenger, so take this advice as a lesson learned that you can use to help your sales folks avoid/minimize making my mistake.

Coach your reps to seek first to understand what the prospect cares about in order to increase the odds of having your reps’ ideas and recommendations be understood, valued, and eventually adopted.

Thank you for the reminder, Mr. Covey.

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