“Okay, this is me planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?”  -Arthur, Inception

Late one evening during an extended cold calling session, I reached one of the corporate HR directors in a manufacturing company.  I ran through the standard sales process involving getting their attention, verifying their position, briefly stating an overall industry benefit, and asking if it was a good time to talk.

When he said that he did, I started with a softball question and asked in broad sense what their company was doing to help get their people to the next level in their professional development.

Now, after hearing this question, this director could have answered in a variety of ways.

He could have said, “We put them through a rigorous training program designed to build their leadership skills and help them progress in the company.”

He could have said, “We encourage them to take responsibility for their own education.”

He could have even said, “None of your business.”

But he said none of those things.  What he said was actually pretty interesting.

He said, “I’m not at liberty to say.”

And I thought to myself, “That’s a really “legal” type response to such an innocuous question.”

His response caught me by surprise, so when the director said, “Is there anything else?”  I told him no, and we ended the call.

But his response stuck with me and I became curious about the company.  His response was out of place for the type conversation we had. This was an opening call, not a deep dive into his technology requiring an NDA.

One week later, while reading one of the online news outlets, I came across an article indicating that the company had filed for Chapter 11 while it downsized its labor force.

Listening Beyond the Words

One of the communication skills that you can actively develop during your cold calling tenure is your ability to listen to your prospects.  Being able to gather information, understand that information, and apply it to turn your prospects into customers is a skill that will serve you in other areas of your career.

There are many books and articles out there loudly proclaiming that salespeople need to enhance their listening skills and listen to their customers more.  If you do an Internet search on the word combination “developing listening skills” Google will spit back at you over 4 million web references.  Most of the material that Google finds offers the same type of advice: use active listening,  nod your head to show that you are listening, repeat back what you heard, ask clarifying questions,  listen to understand,  listen with your eyes… the list is endless.

However, much of what we think of as ‘listening’ really deals with what we focus our attention on and comprehending the information we receive.

Understand that our prospects are always communicating something to us.  But it is up to us as sales people to take in as much information as possible, understand what they are communicating, interpret it in the appropriate context, and then use that knowledge to tailor a presentation and solution that will benefit  our new clients.

To help you understand what your prospects and customers are communicating to you, and to better see things from their perspective, here are five verbal patterns that you should pay attention to when you engage them. And these are absolutely essential when you are conducting your sales process over the phone, over Skype, or via a Google Hangouts session.

Listen to Your Prospect’s Speech Speed and Cadence

There are generalizations that we can apply here, such as people that talk fast are from the northeast while those that talk at a slower pace are from the south.  These gross generalizations are just that, gross, and they will get you into trouble.

Remember, you want to communicate effectively with your client, not simply look for generalizations to make your life easier. And you communicate most effectively with your clients when you talk *like* them.

Talking at a fast pace because someone told you that talking fast conveys excitement is a fast way to lose prospects who associate a slower pace with trust and certainty.

If you want to achieve rapport and communicate in an effective manner, exercise your flexibility and talk like your prospect.  When you introduce yourself or when you ask questions, listen to the cadence of your prospect’s voice and the rate at which they speak. Then, when you speak, match your prospect’s speed and cadence. Talk like them and you’ll enhance your relationship with them..

Listen to Your Prospect’s Intonation

A little while ago,  I participated in a webinar on delivering online presentations.  One topic that the presenter addressed was the importance of your voice in online events. The speaker ran through an exercise that we typically perform in our speaking seminars and it’s something I first heard Zig Ziglar perform in one of his taped programs.

In this exercise you take a simple sentence like, “I didn’t say he stole the money” and you say it seven times, each time shifting the intonation to emphasize a different word in the sentence.  In doing so, you can make the same sentence with the same words in the same order take on several different meanings. It’s an example of how people communicate additional meaning by verbally marking certain words with intonation.

For example, the director I spoke with in the example at the top of the post placed a slight emphasis on the word “I’m”.  This isn’t a significant factor given the peculiarity of his statement. But it does provide additional insight into the conversation and gives clues on the types of questions I would have needed to move the process forward.  An emphasis  on the word “I’m” in his statement “I’m not at liberty to say” might have indicated that the director was the only person who couldn’t talk about the situation.  So it might have helped to ask a question along the lines of, “Is there anyone else I should speak with about this particular challenge?”

On the other hand, an emphasis on the word “liberty” would have been a sign to take a different line of questioning.  There  may have been another person in the room leaving the director not able to  talk freely.  In this case, asking if they were “free to talk” or “should I call back at a more convenient time” would yield more promising results. .

Remember, this is not intended to identify the hidden meaning in what your prospect is saying. However, understanding your prospect’s speech patterns will give you insights and flexibility as you proceed with your questioning.

Listen to Your Prospect for Repeat Phrases

Back when I was working as a storage engineer, I once had a conversation with a prospect who casually brought up a systems requirement.  The phrase that he used was “You know, it’s not a big deal but can you do ‘X’?”  Taking him at his word that it wasn’t an important issue, I didn’t put much emphasis on ‘X’ when I started asking questions about his current situation.  The scope of ‘X’ had to deal with our storage system interfacing to another piece of equipment.  You can put your own sales requirement in ‘X’ to fit your situation.

Ten minutes later, my prospect brought up ‘X’ again, asking if this interface was something that we would ever considered doing.  Overall, he asked about this “unimportant requirement” four times.

If your client repeatedly asks about something, regardless if they preface it with statements like, “it’s not a big thing…” or “I was just curious…” or “it’s not important…” you better believe that it is important to them.  That’s an indicator that it’s time to start drilling down with questions to discover what’s driving the requirement that they claim is not important.

Listen to the Types of Words Your Prospect Uses  

How does your prospect or client describe the current challenge they want to solve?

If your prospect uses predominantly visual words, then those are the types of words that you want to use as well.  When they talk about a vision for the future of their company and they want their board of directors to see the big picture, then you want to describe your product and solution in visually stimulating terms.   If they use words that deal predominantly with hearing and listening, then the descriptions of your product or service need to be “clear as a bell”.

Listening to the types of words that your prospect uses to describe their problem can give you insight into their thinking and decision making process.  Ask yourself what sensory aspect are they using when they are describing their current problem or challenge to you?  You may have the perfect product and it may be a perfect fit for your client’s application.  But if you want to achieve rapport and move the sale forward, then use visual metaphors when your client is talking about their problems in visual terms and use auditory descriptions when your client is describing the problem in auditory terms.  The more aligned you are with your clients, the easier it will be to communicate with them.

Ultimately, you want to convey a sensory rich description of your solution to your prospect, employing a variety of sensory descriptions. But first you need to gain rapport and that will entail meeting your prospect where they currently are and talking with them in terms they find relatable.

Listen to Your Prospect for Phrases that Seem Out of Place  

These phrases can be hard to quantify.  But like the example I encountered at the top of this post, when they happen, you’ll sit up and say, “Where on earth did that come from?”

An “out of place” phrase will depend on the context of the conversation and the person you are speaking with.  It’s the response or answer that doesn’t fit in with the surrounding verbal environment.  It’s an indication that there are some pieces of information missing from the discussion and your prospect may be reticent about revealing too much detail.

Of course you have the option to go after the missing information. The best way to address an out of place phrase is to start asking questions about their statement to gather the missing information. Just remember that they may be under legal obligations not to provide it.

For Communication Effectiveness, Listen for Verbal Patterns

The main key with all of this is to maintain awareness of the patterns that your prospects use to communicate their challenges, requirements, and desires to you.  If you can identify how they prefer to communicate, then you can communicate like them on their terms.  If you can communicate like them, then you will establish rapport quicker and maintain it longer.

And if you can maintain rapport, then you will operate your sales process from a position of trust and you’ll close more deals.