Listening builds relationships, and relationships build customers. In a sales conversation, the most important person is not the supplier – it’s the customer. Hiring you is their opportunity to talk about themselves.
This is something that providers of personal services, such as hairdressers, personal trainers, and manicurists, know only too well.
In a 2016 UK study by Ipsos Mori, hairdressers ranked high on the list of most trusted professionals, right alongside doctors, judges and teachers.
Hairdressers are often entrusted with their clients’ problems – everything from split ends and dye jobs gone wrong to broken marriages. In fact, the intimate nature of the client-hairdresser relationship is so widely recognised that there are even government-funded training programs to help hairdressers identify and support their clients who may be suffering from domestic abuse.
We do like to talk about ourselves, and given the right encouragement, can do it for hours, because it simply makes us feel good.
A neuroscience study by Harvard University in 2012 found that self-disclosure (talking about ourselves) actually fires the same brain circuits that are triggered by food and money, even when it is something as seemingly insignificant as telling others that you like Dr. Seuss books.
A 1990s study of human conversational behaviour, reported in The Scientific American, found that we spend, on average, 60% of a conversation talking about ourselves. A more recent study by Stanford University found that this figure jumps to 80% when communicating via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
However, there’s a cost to all this one-way chatter.
Researchers found that even when money was on the line, participants in an experiment were willing to accept a 17 per cent loss of potential earnings if it meant they were given the opportunity to talk about themselves.
In proposals and presentations, I’ve seen this show up in the way that people seem compelled to start their pitch by talking about their credentials and track record. I don’t think it is due to narcissism, arrogance, or even a high level of confidence - but mostly due to an underlying fear and anxiety.
Leadership coach Oscar Trimboli, who writes on the topic of deep listening, says “Every human wants to be listened to – yet what they crave is to be heard.”
It takes practice to give someone else the space to be heard, especially when that someone is the customer, and they aren’t even in the room yet.
When you next bring your team together to work on a presentation or a proposal, consider how you can hold some space for the customer to be heard.
This might mean engaging an external facilitator to ask customer-led questions; designating someone in your team to act as a proxy for the customer; or leaving a symbolic seat for them at your table.
Listening is a valuable skill that is in short supply. The more we listen, the better we hear, and the deeper and more profitable connections we are able make with others.