Listen to the Silence

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By Alan Weiss

I’ve never been much of a conventional sales person. That is, I don’t do well talking about features, or benefits, or making assumptive closes, or generally doing a verbal tap dance. In fact, because that’s what I believed selling to be early in my career, I convinced myself I would never be very good at what I perceived to be an adversarial relationship: I make a sale, or the prospect does (refusing to buy).

Once I “unlearned” that kind of nonsense through the necessity of being the sole sales source in my solo practice, I realized that what I had to do was to allow the buyer to buy. (This requires a real buyer, not someone “tasked” to evaluate proposals or fishing for quotes.) The breakthrough for me was to understand I merely had to ask intelligent questions and then listen to the silence for a while.

Clients Are Not Damaged

You and I are generally working with excellent companies and smart people. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be where they are, organizationally or individually. I never assume the client is “damaged,” and that I’m the healer. I do believe that smart clients are usually so close to their own issues that they lose perspective, and therefore need fresh questions to revitalize their thinking. (My buyer at Hewlett-Packard once told me that “We hire consultants like you so that we don’t solely breathe our own exhaust.”)

The provocative questions aren’t rocket science, but sufficient to provoke the buyer into thought. For example:

  • Why are you addressing this issue now, and in this manner?
  • Why are you talking to me?
  • What is the trajectory of this issue?
  • What happens if you do nothing?
  • What is the window of opportunity?
  • What is the lost opportunity cost?

You get the idea. Reactive questions which demand thought and narrative response.

Once you ask these and related questions, you shut up. That’s simple for some of us, especially us introverts! But it’s very hard for consultants who believe they must constantly “sell” and “close” and prove their expertise. (I’ve always felt that a client who suffers with a problem or challenge for months may be somewhat skeptical of a consultant who tells them the “solution” in a 30-minute meeting.)

You listen to the silence. You allow the buyer to toss the question around and reflect, or ask you a question, or just ponder. Don’t move into the silence like a latecomer to the theater asking loudly where the right seat is.

The Relationship Is More Important Than a “Solution”

Consultants feel as if they are under the gun in front of the buyer because they believe they have one “take it or leave it” chance to “make a sale.” In fact, that opportunity with the buyer is to build a relationship, a trusting relationship, so that the buyer can, ultimately, decide to buy. By engaging in a conversation based on insightful and provocative questions, followed by an intelligent silence and patience awaiting the buyer’s response, we take the pressure off ourselves and create a true dialogue between peers.

And that is the key. We’re not performing seals. We’re not the long-gone salesperson with a smile and a song. We’re prospective partners who are interested in the buyer’s challenges and are determining whether the possible project is right for us. To do otherwise isn’t just to put too much pressure on ourselves, but is also to invite the horrible business we’re all too familiar with when we accept an assignment that makes no sense for our competency, our passion, or our strategy, but we’ve blindly forged ahead and “made the sale.”

The opportunity to interact with a buyer shouldn’t be squandered on the arbitrary pressure of convincing, or persuading, or closing. It should be focused on the natural relationship building that emanates from intelligent questions, patience, and thoughtful responses.

I was with a buyer once who told me that he had a dozen priorities for the year. “Which are the most important?” I asked, and waited. After a minute or so, he said, “They’re all equally important.”

“Well, which ones would you want to have accomplished if it turns out your boss said, ‘Make sure you accomplish these three’?”

I waited, until he said, “You know, we’ve never had the conversation, and I’m not really sure, but I have worried about that. I don’t know which ones should be at the top of the list.”

“Well, shouldn’t we find out?”

“I think we should,” he said.

I’m not a very good traditional salesperson. But I know how to ask questions, and I can listen to the silence. And I think you can, too.

Alan Weiss, Ph.D. is the author of twenty-five books—including Million Dollar Consulting—which appear in seven languages.

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