Tuesday, November 13, 2012 / by Nathan Clark
A question came up in a conversation I had last week regarding business and career-building. The conversation was with a couple of people who I truly respect and who know business.
The question was “What is the No.1 skill you have to have in business?”
One of my acquaintances answered “Selling.” It’s hard to argue this, and I have long thought that being able to sell is critical for just about anybody who works. And I’m not just talking about “selling” in terms of having the ability to get people to buy things from you.
I think in just about any career, you have to sell yourself. Whether it be in a job interview or a promotional review, it helps to have the ability to convince those interviewing you than you are the person. In just about any career, you also have to sell you ideas. If you have a great idea, you typically have to get others to buy in. It’s the same whether you’re an employee or employer – either one at some point must “sell” ideas to the other.
If you’re a real estate investor who’s ever had to fill a property with good tenants, you know that you probably have to have some level of salesmanship. If you’re a parent, you might have realized that convincing your kids to do something might involve selling them on an idea, too. The recent election just showed that no matter how much money a campaign spends to spread its message, it’s hard to win if you can’t sell enough voters on that message.
So, yes, selling is important. But I’m not sure it’s the MOST important skill to have in business.
I’ve been thinking lately about the skill of listening and how it applies not only to business but to life in general. I’ve come to believe that the ability to truly listen is as valuable as the ability to sell and that it’s probably harder to master for most.
I don’t think you can be as effective selling something if you don’t fully understand the needs and wants of those you’re trying to sell to. When we think of salesmanship, the ability to sell, we tend to frame that ability as one of speaking. If sales as a career has a negative connotation, it’s because it’s sometimes viewed as a skill for those with the gift of gab, or those who can B.S.
But even the best talkers, the golden-tongued, smooth sellers will not be able to sell if they don’t know what their customers want. And to understand this, they must know how to listen.
It seems obvious, of course. You wouldn’t walk into a Chevy dealership, tell them you want a family sedan and expect to be shown a Corvette. Were that to happen, you’d correctly assume that the salesperson clearly did not listen to you.
But what if you walk into that dealership NOT knowing what kind of vehicle you want? How is the salesperson supposed to arrive at your needs or wants if you yourself aren’t sure? Well, he or she has to ask you about your needs and wants, and then must listen to what you’re saying.
You might think that salesmanship in the above scenario would be the salesperson convincing the customer of what they want, but that’s not what the best sales people do. Sure, if you’re unsure of what you want, a B.S.-er could probably convince you to spend more than you need to, make you feel like you have to have options that you don’t really need, and watch you drive off the lot that day in the car he or she wants you to have.
But that’s not a great strategy for the salesperson. What happens when you get home and realize – the next day, in a week or two, whenever – that the vehicle doesn’t fit your needs? You’re not likely to visit that sales person again, are you?
But if you would have encountered a sales person who, instead of trying to convince you what you need, asked questions and actually LISTENED to what you were saying? And listening doesn’t involve merely hearing words. It means hearing, grasping, interpreting and empathizing with the message.
That’s what makes listening a difficult skill to master for some. Hearing what I say and knowing what I want involve steps in between, levels of comprehension and processing that not everybody has. I think this skill is more valuable than what we’d traditionally think of as the ability to sell, simply because it might be a pre-requisite to being able to sell at an elite level.
And listening’s value goes beyond the business world. Think of any inter-personal relationship you’ve had – don’t you think the ability to hear, understand, empathize and act on what another person is communicating to you is more beneficial to the relationship than your ability to convince them of things (selling)?
Communication is a two-way street; we must be able to express ourselves effectively and also effectively “get” what the other person is expressing. A talker might have the ability to sell, but someone who can listen AND talk is a better communicator, which leads to better salesmanship AND is beneficial in all aspects of their life that involve other people.