customer listening in sales decisions - Bruce Wilson explains how listening during sales facilitates a buying decision
customer listening in sales decisions - Bruce Wilson explains how listening during sales facilitates a buying decision
customer listening in sales decisions - Bruce Wilson explains how listening during sales facilitates a buying decision

I'm Not A Salesman, But I Sell Anyway: A Non-Sales Professional's Approach To Sales

By listening supportively and asking questions to help potential customers understand their choices, you won't "Hard Sell"--but you will build your business.

Viva la ambivalence! Some of the business people I work with have a love-hate relationship with sales. Most value their own sales ability, because they need to, but they may also feel ambivalent about it. "I'm NOT a salesman...but I DO sell" is the sort of thing the ambivalent ones say. And when they say it, I also get the idea that they feel guilty about being ambivalent, as if a better business person would always be gung ho about sales.

Many of us have become ambivalent towards sales after overexposure to pushy, fast-talking, don't-take-no-for-an-answer salespeople, including some who seem to be trying to provoke a refusal no matter how good their offer might be. Some of us have become convinced by repeated contact with such incomprehensible behavior that REAL salespeople must follow their own secret set of rules...thus leaving everyone else under-educated for the sales arena.


This section, based in part on Jeff Thull's 2003 book entitled Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High, was written by Bruce Wilson, a Seattle-based coach who helps business professionals, executives, and entrepreneurs improve their return on personal effort in business.

Of course, this negative stereotype unfairly portrays the vast majority of people who sell (whether or not it accurately describes the ones who have left the strongest impression on us). And fortunately for the non-salesperson-who-sells-anyway, researchers tell us that the reality of effective sales technique is very different from the stereotype.

Good listeners help potential customers make up their own minds. Entrepreneurs, professionals, and other business people who don't have a sales background are often surprised to learn that the two most important actions you can take to make yourself effective at sales are:

first, show them you can listen, which in turn demonstrates that you can understand them; and

second, ask questions that help them figure out what they need to know in order to feel comfortable deciding whether to purchase. This also allows them get to know you and gives them a taste of what it's like to work with you.

In the end the potential customer has enough information about their own requirements and your qualifications (including personal style) to make a purchase decision.

The beauty of this approach is that it requires zero "sales training" because it's simply a matter of listening patiently and asking the questions it usually makes sense to ask of someone you are going to work with, while occasionally offering unbiased information to help them fill gaps in their knowledge. Once you have helped a potential customer evaluate their strengths, weaknesses, and options within your area of expertise, if the person you are talking to is really a potential customer you should be close to completing a sale already. Meanwhile, as things progress if either you or they realize that a purchase isn't likely to go through, you can step back and move on before investing any more time.


Don't push: listen. Recognize that some potential customers start out poorly equipped to make a decision, and some may react defensively. Listen to them respectfully, while helping equip them to make up their own mind and overcome indecision.

Try to ask questions that start with the word "what." Make your questions as non-leading and non-argumentative as possible. For example, instead of "but wouldn't you save money by outsourcing that to us?", your could ask something more like "What else could you do with the time you spend doing that?"

Providing a preview of what's to come. Walking through this pre-sales client evaluation is not only an opportunity to exchange technical information and understand purchase criteria, it's a window through which they can preview your professional expertise and "bedside manner"--both of which they want to receive as part of the "package" they buy from you. Through a combination of attentive listening, asking analytical or "coaching" questions, and offering unbiased observations within your area of expertise, you also demonstrate that you are reliable, a valuable source of relevant information, and not greedy. You begin building a bond of trust which makes you stand out from your competitors. The importance of trust cannot be stressed enough in a sales context--even when there is one and only one possible vendor to purchase from, a buyer is more likely to leave things the way they are now than to do business with a vendor who they don't believe.

When a potential customer arrives at an overview where they can see all likely alternatives and estimate the value to them of each, their decision to purchase is clear. They know everything they need to know to justify doing business with you, including the fact that you are reliable and that your style is compatible with their style of doing business.

If they decide not to hire you, or at least not for the time being, both you and they can move on to more likely prospects for now, comfortable in the knowledge that the fit wasn't right at the moment, while having established a foundation for future sales and referrals. Over the long run, if they are still really a potential customer, any number of different circumstances could cause them to choose you instead, such as turnover among their staff, a significant change for their current supplier, market forces, outside recommendations, etc.

In conclusion. "Traditional" hard-sell sales tactics typically fail to walk potential customers through a process that helps them learn, based on their own terms, exactly how much value a purchase will add to their business. In contrast, if you listen to potential customers and help them learn enough to decide whether a purchase makes sense, you simultaneously overcome their inertia and demonstrate your professional knowledge and compatibility, readying them both to buy and to buy from you.



>> CONTINUED: Part Two: Four Stages Of Sales Through Building Customer Rapport

For further reading.

Tanja Parsley provides a powerful, simple to use, easy to remember approach to asking questions for your first meeting with a potential client in her article entitled The Central Role of Listening in Sales For Service Providers.

Although aimed specifically at high-end sales professionals, Jeff Thull, Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) (>, is highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about sales and the role of listening in establishing customer rapport.

This section was written by Bruce Wilson, an executive coach, trainer, and facilitator who has helped individual business people and organizations across the U.S. to improve their leadership, customer relationships, and teamwork. For more information about his work, or to get in touch with him, visit


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