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The Sales Manager’s Guide to Teaching Active Listening to Salespeople

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At SalesDrive, we focus on how to effectively hire sales reps for your company.

While our goal is to help you find salespeople that possess Drive and ambition, we also understand that there are other skills that matter.

At the top of this list is listening. Let us take a look at the importance of active listening — what it is, how you can identify good listeners and avoid poor ones.

If your salespeople are not skilled listeners, their sales will suffer – there is no doubt about it.

That is because customers do not want to feel like they are being sold to. Instead, they want to feel like their concerns are being heard and connect with a salesperson like they would with a consultant whose main goal is to meet their needs.

For your salespeople to connect with customers this way and achieve higher sales as a result, they must become skilled in active listening.

What is Active Listening?

Simply put, active listening happens when your salespeople listen and respond to their customers in ways that build trust and mutual understanding.

Active listening means listening with all of your senses and it requires paying full attention to what your customer is saying.

For active listening to occur, a salesperson must concentrate on and comprehend what the customer is saying, respond thoughtfully, and remember what has been said.

When a customer feels like your salespeople are actively listening, they will be more likely to buy because active listening builds rapport. Plus, active listening helps salespeople overcome barriers in the form of negative salesperson stereotypes, like being someone who talks more than they listen or someone who is only interested in meeting quota and making money.

This ability to listen and listen well is one of the most important sales skills. A well-trained listener can also pick up subtle emotional signals, which is important since buying decisions are primarily driven by emotions. It might sound easy, but a study conducted in the financial services industry found that in a typical sales call, the salesperson spoke a whopping 80% of the time.


Salespeople get pumped up, nervous and they want to make sure to get all the material covered. The trouble is, speaking 80% of the time is not collaboration — it’s domination, and customers do not like it.

There is an old saying in sales relative to a conversation with the customer: “Selling is like tennis… as long as the ball is in the other person’s court, you cannot lose.” The same goes for listening. Encourage the customer to do most of the talking and listen actively as they guide you toward the essence of their needs and, ultimately, the sale.

Here are some more reasons why active listening is a critical skill for salespeople:

  • It helps salespeople overcome objectionsWhen a salesperson listens more than they talk, they will be able to better understand all of the customer’s objections. This make is much easier for them to uncover, address and overcome those objections.
  • It helps salespeople overcome initial resistance from customersWhen salespeople begin a call, they may hear the customer say that they do not need help or do not have time to talk. In that case, the salesperson can use active listening to open up the conversation and show that they are there to help resolve a problem that the customer is facing.
  • It helps salespeople close salesOf course, the benefit of active listening is that your salespeople will be most excited about is that is allows them to achieve a higher level of sales success. Active listening works this way because it allows the salesperson to close a sale without coming off as pushy or offensive.

If your sales team cannot master active listening, they will miss out on many sales opportunities. Do not let that happen – instead, use the following guide to teach active listening to your salespeople so they can reach their fullest potential.

How to Teach Active Listening to Salespeople

You can easily teach active listening to your salespeople. First, it is best if they research the customer before the conversation begins so they can anticipate their problems and identify solutions. Then, salespeople should follow the four-step process outlined below.

1. Genuinely Listen to Customers

Unfortunately, salespeople are commonly thought of more as talkers than listeners. If customers view your salespeople this way, they may be turned off from your company and may be less likely to make a purchase.

To combat this issue, explain to your salespeople that they must be in-the-moment when talking to a customer so they can genuinely listen and understand the feelings that the customer is conveying. By taking the time to observe what the customer is saying and why they are saying it, your salespeople can improve their chances of seeing the situation from the customer’s perspective. Once they understand that perspective, it becomes much easier to sell.

Here are some tips that will help your salespeople genuinely listen to customers:

  • Set the script aside – While scripts can be helpful, they should not be referenced by your salespeople when a customer is talking. Instead, salespeople should focus on having a real conversation with the customer rather than reading a prompt off a piece of paper.
  • Block out distractions – Salespeople should focus completely on listening to the customer when they are talking instead of paying attention to anything else, including preconceived ideas about what the customer might say next.
  • Try to understand the complete message being sent – If your salespeople talk to customers in-person or via video conferencing, they can observe non-verbal clues that uncover a customer’s true feelings. If they talk to customers on the phone, they can observe auditory clues like tone of voice and language.

2. Repeat Back What Was Said

When the customer makes an important statement that expresses their wants or objections, it is important for the salesperson to repeat that statement back to them.

One option for doing this is to simply repeat the statement word-for-word. However, this option can make a salesperson seem like they lack basic understanding if this method is overused, so it should be used sparingly.

To avoid repeating the customer’s statement word-for-word, your salespeople can either paraphrase the customer’s statement or put the statement into their own words. Choosing one of these options shows a deeper comprehension of the customer’s needs and feelings, and it can be effective at improving sales, as long as salespeople do not stray too far from the customer’s original language.

3. Confirm for Clarity

After a salesperson repeats back what a customer has said, they must confirm that they repeated the customer’s thoughts back effectively. To accomplish this, here are a few things the salesperson can say immediately after repeating the customer’s thoughts:

  • Did I communicate that back to you correctly?”
  • “Do I correctly understand what you have shared?”
  • “Is that what you meant?”

If the customer says “no” in response to the confirmation question, the salesperson should clarify their understanding by asking the customer to more clearly explain what they meant, like this:

“My apologies for misunderstanding. Could you explain what I missed?”

Then, the salesperson should listen attentively to discover what they missed. Once the customer explains what was not understood, the salesperson can repeat the customer’s thoughts back and confirm for clarity again until a mutual understanding occurs.

This step can take a few tries to master, but once a salesperson gets good at it, they will automatically build trust with customers more easily.


4. Ask the Right Follow-Up Questions

Once the salesperson has listened to the customer, repeated back the customer’s statement and confirmed for clarity, it is time for him to ask a relevant follow-up question.

To succeed at this step, the salesperson must ask an open-ended question that encourages the customer to share more about their objections, wants or needs. When the customer has an opportunity to do this, there is a good chance that they will give the salesperson more information to work with and use to make a sale. The key to making this happen lies in active listening the entire time the customer is answering the open-ended question.

To help your salespeople learn how to perform these 4 steps effectively, you can try:

  • Group role-playing activitiesHave your salespeople sit in a circle. Then, have one salesperson begin by using an example of an ordinary sales conversation. Have the other salespeople in the circle offer comments, one at a time, to keep the conversation going. Encourage your salespeople to make use of active listening throughout this process, and provide feedback along the way to help them understand when they are right and wrong.
  • Coaching and/or training sessions – Obviously, your salespeople cannot actively listen if they do not clearly understand the steps involved. Train or coach them to make sure they know how to perform each step, and answer any questions they have.
  • Call reviews – Sit down with each of your salespeople for one-on-one call reviews, providing positive feedback as well as constructive criticism so they can improve their active listening process and sell more effectively.

While mastering the patience, determination and concentration required to perform active listening may be difficult, it is an absolutely necessary skill for your sales team to learn. Start by having them implement the steps outlined in this post as soon as possible, and you should see sales results begin to improve.

So how do you find good listeners for your sales team?

While active listening skills can be developed through sensitivity and training, it really starts with identifying the right salespeople during the interview.

Top Qualities to Look for in Sales Interviews

When interviewing potential sales candidates, there is much to consider. Ideally, you should know exactly what you are looking for prior to conducting any actual interviews.

The criteria may change based on the industry you operate in and sales needs you have, but it will generally contain some basic qualities:

  • Confidence. This is one of the easiest qualities to spot. You can recognize confidence – or lack thereof – as soon as a candidate walks in the room. Look for a strong posture, steady voice, firm handshake and appropriate eye contact.
  • Clarity. How well does the candidate speak and do they clearly convey their ideas? Clarity is everything in sales, and you want an employee who can turn thoughts into compelling words.
  • Creativity. It is important that a salesperson possess some level of creativity. Asking questions that make your candidates think will help you gauge how they act in unique situations.
  • Listening. Listening is extremely important, and you want salespeople that can consider advice and respond appropriately.

How do you gauge whether a candidate has good or bad listening skills in a brief interview or a one-time meeting?

Three Signs of a Bad Listener

As important as discovering positive listening skills is, weeding out candidates who are bad listeners is even more crucial. When hiring sales reps, be aware of the following three signs of bad listeners:

  1. Does the candidate interrupt you? A candidate can be a little nervous and overeager. However, a consistent habit of interruption suggests that the candidate puts their needs and agenda first. A good active listener will patiently wait for you to finish speaking before providing a response. A bad listener will cut you off and follow their own initiatives.
  2. Is the candidate a “motor mouth”? If you have a long-winded candidate, see if you can get them to be more concise when communicating. Pause the interview and gently ask if the candidate has ever gotten the feedback that they can be long-winded at times. Gently remind them about the time constraints of the interview process, and politely ask that their responses be shortened. Note whether the candidate can achieve this. If so, you know that they can improve with feedback about listening skills. If not, but the candidate is selected, pay attention to this developmental need and provide the training to help them improve.
  3. Bad body language. You can tell much about a person’s listening skills by looking at body language. Good listeners will make direct eye contact with you while you are speaking and acknowledge what you are saying with nods, facial expression or verbal agreements. A bad listener does not maintain eye contact, fidgets and is clearly disengaged and preparing for a chance to speak.

Use This Question to Identify a Sales Candidate’s Listening Skills

One of the best tools you have at your disposal when determining whether or not someone is a good listener, is asking targeted questions during the sales interview. While it is best if the interview process takes on a conversational tone, there are times when direct questioning is best.

You will want to ask questions that uncover the specific traits you are looking for, and it is best to go with behavioral questions that require candidates to think about their past experiences.

However, if you only had the chance to ask one question to determine their listening skills, the following should be your go-to:

“Tell me about a time when you had to read between the lines to find out what was important to a customer.”

How a candidate responds to this question should tell you everything you need to know about their listening skills.

Look for the candidate’s degree of cleverness in both identifying the customer’s real needs and asking sharp follow-up questions to go deeper.

If the answer is broad and vague, you can see that the candidate did not truly listen to the question. If the candidate spends the time to truly dissect the question, they likely have what it takes.

Creative questions that ask for specifics allow you to see how well a candidate can follow directions.

Our Behavioral Interview Masterclass

The good news is that unlike Drive, listening skills can be taught. Nonetheless, it helps to diagnose listening challenges from the start, so that you clearly understand the type of salesperson you are hiring.

Our masterclass on behavioral interviewing equips you with all the materials and questions you need to determine a candidate’s listening skills from the get-go and identify whether or not they will sell for you.

For more information on our masterclasses or sales assessment, The DriveTest®, contact us today.

We would be happy to discuss our products and services and how we have helped past clients find long-term salespeople through our psychology-backed hiring methods.

Sales Hiring Simplified!

Hire top-performing salespeople with The DriveTest®. Get started now with one free test.

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