Improving Listening Skills

By Nancy Friedman

Pretend you’re a real estate agent, showing a five million dollar home to a nationally known sports star. This sports star and his beautiful actress wife really like the house. If the sale is made, the commission will allow you to buy a new luxury car and pay off a lot of bills.

As the sale is about to be closed, the athlete’s cell phone rings and his smile turns to a frown. He has just been traded and will be leaving town. He relays the message to his wife who breaks down and cries. Question: how old is the real estate person?

Give up? It’s not a trick. You might want to re-read the scenario. It says pretend you are a real estate sales person. So how old are you?

Okay, it was a trick, but no trickier than listening to your clients whether you’re on the phone or in person. Listening is an art, not a science. While we usually can hear prospects or clients, the real question is if we’re really listening to them.

You might think listening is easy. After all, doesn’t everybody listen? Listening isn’t the same as hearing. Think about a commercial for a product you have no interest in. It’s easy to tune that information out, isn’t it?

Hearing is one thing, but listening is another.  While it’s easy to hear what the client or prospect says, great service begins with great listening skills. Here are our six steps to becoming a better listener:

Tip #1 – Decide to be a Better Listener: In school, you’re taught to read, write, do math, and dozens of other topics. But in all my schooling, I don’t ever recall having a course on listening. Yet as we all know, listening is a crucial skill. The first step is all about you – your personal commitment to becoming a better listener. You need to decide to be a better listener.

Tip # 2 – Welcome the Client or Prospect: Be overtly friendly. By being obviously friendly and welcoming the person, it immediately sets the stage to let the caller know that you’re interested and actively listening. One effective way to show you’re listening is to say, “You’ve come to the right place.”

Tip #3 – Concentrate: Your mind processes information much faster than the normal rate of speech and therefore, you half-listen and do other things too. Your brain tends to solve other problems, to think about what you’re going to say next, other calls you need to make, lunch plans, or a host of other activities.

The mind needs to be disciplined to pay full attention to others and to listen closely. Even when you try to listen closely, little things can distract you, like a regional accent, someone who speaks too rapidly, or when the prospect is discussing a topic you don’t find interesting. It’s easy to be distracted by many things, but don’t let that happen. Concentrate instead.

Tip #4 – Keep An Open Mind: We’d go a long way toward curing the problem of poor listening habits by not interrupting people. By carefully listening and letting them finish their thoughts, you hear them out completely and avoid jumping to conclusions.

Also, remember the difference between a fact and an assumption. A statement of fact is normally made after an observation. An assumption can be made any time – before, during, or after an observation (or with no observation at all).

We want to operate as closely as we can with facts rather than assumptions. A good listener tries to stay objective and not be judgmental. Try not to let personal impressions modify what you hear. Remember to keep an open mind.

Tip #5 – Give Feedback That You’re Listening: Often, when the person on the other end of the line doesn’t give you feedback, you think you’ve been disconnected. Remember, with the phone there are no visual signals. Too much silence gives the impression you’re not listening.

Even when you’re thinking or looking for something, you need to send feedback through a variety of short replies acknowledging the caller. Give them a spoken signal that you’re receiving the message. Phrases like “bear with me while I look that up,” or “let’s see what the notes say,” are good examples. Also, use a variety of replies, not repeating one word like okay, okay, okay.

Tip #6 – Make Notes While You Listen and Review Notes with the Caller: This is basic, but it’s very important. Document key words as people talk – their name, what they need, and any follow-up items. Please don’t take a chance on forgetting when it’s so easy to make a note.

If the caller gives you extra information, eliminate the unnecessary bits that can be safely discarded. Whether you’re taking a telephone message, helping a client, or talking to a prospect, repeat and paraphrase the key information to be sure you’ve got it correct. It lets the caller know you’ve really listened.

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2004]

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