For several years, I taught interpersonal communications at the college level. And as an instructor, I would receive complimentary books written by important authors and communications experts trying to promote their instruction in this area. I received them, because they wanted me to recommend and require their book for my classes so that students would purchase them.

Do you know what I found interesting?  What all of the books written by the top PhDs and communications specialists say is the #1 interpersonal skill? Do you know what all of them agree with? They know that Listening is the #1 skill.  Yes, Listening.

That’s because effective sales communications is the art of managing perceptions – what a salesperson says and what those they speak to perceive as true. And for salespeople this means that their products and services are purchased by someone who sees them as right for what they want or need. Which means that salespeople, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and everyone who interacts with other human beings must talk, and they must listen before talking.

Let’s look at this further. Listening helps you in these 7 ways. It:

  1. Begins and strengthens relationships, because people think you value what they say, believe, and want.
  2. Finds problems in advance by someone listening and asking questions, and it helps to develop solutions that make a positive difference for others. That’s because it helps to customize them.
  3. Eliminates concerns and fears by allowing people to voice them so that a salesperson, father, mother, or a friend can help with solutions.
  4. Makes communications clear between a customer and a salesperson, because salespeople understand if they are being heard and understood and if what they recommend addresses a person’s desires.
  5. Increases the quality of a sale or service moment. The person in sales or customer service better understands what a person wants or needs before they present, advise, or recommend a product or service. 
  6. Decreases stress and tension in others, because they can vent the emotions and frustrations they feel to someone they think cares about them – someone they can trust at a deeper level.
  7. Helps to gain agreement between people, because the issues in the way can be understood by both parties and a win-win solution is developed.

It’s obvious when you think about it. Listening is the #1 face-to-face, interpersonal skill for anyone who wants to communicate at the highest levels, and, of course, that means salespeople. 

The Problem

“No one listens to anyone anymore.” Seldom do we experience anyone in our lives who is willing to listen to us for any length of time.

Why? Here are 4 Reasons:

  1. It wasn’t modeled in our early years as children and young adults. We were not exposed to people who listened to others.
  2. We developed a coping strategy with life that’s made us selfish and self-centered with a tendency to talk or persuade and not listen.
  3. It is difficult to listen because we think several times faster than we talk, so as anyone, say a potential customer talks, we tend to think about something else – perhaps what we want to say next instead of really hearing not just the facts. Over time, our poor attention and listening habits become a habit and we miss the emotions and the main most important idea that people try to communicate with us.
  4. We’ve not worked on it as the important, interpersonal skill area that it is, and it is not a habit that we have formed well.

So, we have: 

  • Shallow relationships.
  • Unsolved problems between ourselves and others.
  • Misunderstandings.
  • Product pitches with no relevance to people’s real lives and needs.
  • Low trust.
  • Missed sales.

Here’s what Ralph Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens said in the article “Listening to People.”

Recently, the top executives of a major manufacturing plant in the Chicago area were asked to survey the role that listening plays in their work. Later, an executive seminar on listening was held. Here are three typical comments made by participants:

“Frankly, I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”

“I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that many of the troubles have resulted from someone not hearing something, or getting it in a distorted way.”

“It’s interesting to me that we have considered so many facets of communication in the company, but have inadvertently overlooked listening. I’ve about decided that it’s the most important link in the company’s communications, and it’s obviously also the weakest one.”

Later in their article, they talk about sales …

High-pressure salesmanship is rapidly giving way to low-pressure methods in the marketing of industrial and consumer goods. Today’s successful salesman is likely to center his attention on the customer-problem approach of selling.

To put this approach to work, the skill of listening becomes an essential tool for the salesman, while his vocal agility becomes less important. How a salesman talks turns out to be relatively unimportant because what he says, when it is guided by his listening, gives power to the spoken word. In other words, the salesman’s listening becomes an on-the-spot form of customer research that can immediately be put to work in formulating any sales talk.

Regardless of the values that listening may hold for people who live by selling, a great many sales organizations seem to hold to the conviction that glibness has magic. Their efforts at improvement are aimed mainly at the talking side of salesmanship. It is our conviction, however, that with the typical salesman the ability to talk will almost take care of itself, but the ability to listen is something in real need of improvement.

Coaching Listening into Practice for Great Sales Results

Now, let’s jump to how to coach salespeople to listen their way to great sales – sales that occur because their prospects were able to talk about their wants, needs, and problems to someone who appeared to ask about them and listen. As a consequence, they purchased, because they developed strong beliefs that certain products and services were customized to fill their needs and solve their problems.

To prepare your listening lessons with your salespeople, you must first develop the top 8-12 questions for salespeople to ask prospects during your sales process. We’ve developed these for hundreds of companies in many different industries. They are open ended questions that start with who, what, where, why, how, describe or tell. These questions, when asked by your salespeople, will help potential customers discuss what their wants, needs or problems are that they are trying to solve.

This will be your most important coaching tool for face-to-face or telephone sales. With these top 8-12 typical open-ended questions to ask when talking with a prospects, you can coach the following 8 actions. These actions will lead to great sales and customers who love the sales reps, the company, and their new purchases. Here are the 8 actions:

  1. To transition from the initial rapport building between a rep and a potential customer, find the right to ask for their permission to ask questions. Teach salespeople to transition to a listen step in the sales process by requesting, “May I ask you a few questions to see how we might best help you?” In the beginning, have the top 8-12 questions with them to ask and take notes on.
  2. Listen 80% and talk 20% as they ask these questions designed to understand the wants, needs, or problems to be addressed with a new customer.
  3. Take notes and write down the key words they use to explain their needs and wants.
  4. Have the rep to be sure to show they are listening through their facial expressions, nods, and grimaces. Use verbal “uh-huhs,” “wows,” and an empathic “really?” to show they’re present and listening.
  5. Help the rep to learn to explore their answers with other questions that help both the rep and the prospect better understand the prospect’s wants, needs, and problems with clarity.
  6. As they ask questions and listen, they also need to remember to continue to adjust to the pace, tone, and brevity wanted by the customer and their personality. (ex. Dynamo vs. Diplomat)
  7. Another tip to teach reps is: Ask about the impact of the most important needs and problems that prospects tell them about.  (“What frustrates you most when ________?” or, “How much do you think _______ costs you?”)
  8. Finally, teach them that before presenting a product or service to summarize their situation, the needs, and the impact with a word picture – “What I hear you saying is …”

Listening is an Improvable Skill

People can learn to listen, and Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens tell us of massive increases in listening skills to those who work to improve. They have noted as much as 60% greater capacities in just a few weeks with greater relations, work productivity improvements, and sales increases. 

When salespeople learn to listen before presenting, they will understand how to make their advice and presentations of great value to the prospect. That’s because what they present they will be able to customize to the needs and problems expressed by the customer. They will be able to do this because they listened. And the prospect will see they listened. Trust and value will increase for the salesperson, the company, and the product or service being sold.

Coach these actions before and after a sale.  Also, let salespeople see you in action. Remember to develop the 12-15 top open-ended questions as a crucial tool for your sales process. Give copies out and have salespeople use these to take notes on while asking the questions. As they learn them, its actually ok if they read the question from the list until they memorize them. They will look like professionals, because they will be prepared to listen well to others before presenting to them.

They will make a lot more sales and earn a lot more money from satisfied and loyal new customers who love them, their company, and their products and services. 


When they take these improved listening skills into their homes, their families flourish. They will strengthen and encourage their children, and life is better in the home, the city and the nation.

2000 years ago, these wise proverbs remain true:

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

These give me the motivation to improve my listening skills and to help salespeople do the same, because we will reduce the mistakes and shame of being poor at this crucial interpersonal skill. In the end, we will all take pleasure in understanding the special people we serve. Our opinions and words of advice will become wiser with the knowledge we gain before speaking.