Hero image of Brian McCauley, ProSales columnist

Salespeople like to talk, are good at talking, think talking is a major portion of their jobs, and, most dangerously, think their talking helps make good connections with customers and prospects alike. In reality, though, this belief could damage relationships.

Have you ever spent 45 minutes in a conversation that should have lasted 20 minutes? You might walk away thinking you’ve made a good impression because the prospect gave you so much of her time listening to you talk. However, that might not be what she's thinking. After politely listening to you drone on, she might want to avoid you next time, because you wasted too much of her time. In this case, you might think you’ve made a great connection but, in fact, the opposite is true.

So how do you minimize these unfortunate interactions? Any good conversation requires you to ask the right questions and actively listen to prospects and customers. It’s very insulting to ask someone a question and not really listen to the answer. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is known for saying we need to listen to understand, not respond. That is a great piece of advice but it is incredibly difficult to do. We listen through our own filters, and we’re hardwired to think about ourselves first—it’s a survival of the fittest mentality.

That’s why, when talking to prospects and customers, I keep the acronym CIA (consequences, impact, or affect) in mind. This keeps me focused on the consequences of developments at a company, their impact on people and processes, and how they might affect the business.

Here’s what I mean: Imagine that I’m a salesperson on a call with a prospective customer, hoping to persuade him to buy replacement windows from me. During this conversation he says that his supplier is experiencing unpredictable product lead times, ranging from two weeks to four weeks. A typical salesperson would see this as an opportunity to sell a product by immediately telling the contractor about his company’s fast and consistent average lead time and asking for an opportunity to quote a job. I’m recommending that you slow down and think to yourself, What are the consequences of this situation? Then, ask the contractor the following: How is this unreliable lead time affecting your crews and customers? What are the consequences to your business?

These questions dig a lot deeper into the situation than simply “selling” when the first hint of a problem is exposed. Asking about consequences presents two helpful things to me as a salesperson: It underscores the magnitude of the problem to prospects and it brings emotion into their buying decision.

Being inquisitive, listening more than talking, and focusing on CIA questions will help you immensely. You’ll not only be able to demonstrate how your product or service helps the buyer make more money, relieve a pain point, or make life easier, you’ll become a better salesperson.