I introduced the phrase “lateral listening” into a recent blog article, and had quite a few people ask me what I meant. In this short article, I’d like to explain in a little more detail what I mean by lateral listening and why I believe that it’s an important skill for anyone in a customer-facing role - and particularly for salespeople.
The idea stemmed from observing sales people in a series of prospect role-plays and real-line customer calls. The sales people usually went into the discussion with a clear goal to advance the sales process. But for many of them, this goal was standing in the way of their truly understanding the prospect.
The problem with listening for the answers you want to hear
The problem was particularly apparent when sales people were following a prescribed sales process. What seemed to be happening was that these salespeople asked questions and evaluated the prospect’s answers in order to further qualify the opportunity and advance the sale. They asked questions knowing what answers they were hoping to hear.
Unfortunately, this single-minded mission meant that they often ignored answers or statements from the prospect that did not appear to contribute to these somewhat over-simplistic objectives. But to an outside observer, it was obvious that the prospect was sharing invaluable insights - they just weren’t being picked up.
Now, I’m all in favour of having a clear plan in mind in advance of every conversation. But it seems that sticking too rigidly to the plan can have a really detrimental effect on the quality of the conversation. By listening too hard for the expected, and reacting too quickly upon hearing it, sales people can miss out on uncovering the really valuable insights.
Learning from the unspoken
The issue is compounded by the fact that much of what can be learned from a sales conversation isn’t restricted to what the prospect has said - thinking about how they say it, why they chose to say what they say and the things they don’t talk about is often fundamental to really understanding them.
Having said all this, there’s obviously a sub-set of sales people who manage to do a rather better job, and I believe they share some common characteristics. In particular, they seem to think and ask “why” a lot more than their less adept colleagues:
- They seek to understand why the prospect might be motivated to do anything other than stick with the status quo (“why change?”)
- They try and determine why the prospect might be motivated to act now, rather than later, and what would happen if they didn’t (“why now?”)
- They try and uncover the prospect’s relationship with their managers and peers, and their ability to mobilise their colleagues to action
- They try and understand not just what the prospect has said, but also how they said it and why they might have chosen to say it
- They regard what the prospect hasn’t said or is unwilling to talk about as being just as significant as what they have said
- They hold back from proposing any solutions until they believe they have truly understood what the prospect actually needs
And this is where the concept of “lateral listening” comes in: really effective listeners pick up much more than the obvious from conversations. They try and put what they have just heard into context, and they are prepared to adapt and react and go “off piste” in order to pursue a particularly interesting insight.
Plan, prepare, and then be prepared to abandon your plan
When it comes to preparing for a sales conversation, they go along with Dwight Eisenhower when he memorably remarked, “the plan is nothing, but planning is everything”. From the moment the discussion starts, it’s all about listening, reacting and adapting.
Now it’s clear that some sales people just have a gift for lateral listening, but experience suggests that they represent a minority of the population. So can the less naturally gifted improve their skills in this area?
Lateral listening can be developed
The evidence suggests that they can, through a combination of training, role-plays and on-going coaching and mentoring. It requires a certain amount of effort, and a reasonable amount of intelligence and genuine curiosity on the part of your sales people.
But the results have got to worth it, when you consider the alternative: the huge amount of wasted effort that follows from missing vital clues and pursuing false trails. It’s a no-brainer, unless you’re unfortunate enough to be able to apply that description to the majority of your sales people.
But if things really are that desperate, you’ve probably got more urgent things to attend to than reading this blog…