Effectiveness in sales requires being an excellent listener, something that starts by giving your contacts your full and undivided attention, without working on your response. But it’s not as simple as active listening, in which you parrot back what your client just said, proving you heard them. Instead, being a strong listener means picking up on and interpreting useful signals, both weak and strong. Tracking both categories helps you provide more value in the conversation, especially during discovery. To pick up what isn’t being said is a different level of listening skills.
Weak signals are statements, questions, or behaviors that don’t tell you much about what’s important to your contacts or which areas they’re struggling in. These signals are weak because you don’t have the information you need, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.
For instance, your client might say something like “We’re interested in learning about what other companies like ours are doing” or “We’ve just been a little disappointed in their results.” Both statements are short on specifics but actually reveal a great deal about the situation. In fact, the missing information can be far more valuable! You might respond to the first statement by saying, “What area of results would serve you the best? We could start with some of the common challenges we see and what’s working right now, if that would be helpful.”
Weak signals make it difficult to acquire the information you need to help your contacts. To improve your discovery, you need to ask questions and help your client strengthen their signal. But you also need to understand what’s motivating the weak signal, such as a lack of trust, not wanting to make a problem “real” enough to require action, fear of appearing ignorant, or not wanting to suggest or admit a mistake. Addressing those issues means creating an environment where your client feels safe enough to be candid with you, something that requires patience and a supportive, non-judgmental attitude.
Strong signals are the statements, questions or behaviors, that provide you with a high level of clarity about what your clients believe they want or need, the challenges they are trying to overcome, or some area they are interested in improving. Strong signals are easy to identify, but you still have to understand what you are seeing and hearing in a way that is actionable for you and your client. You still need to strengthen the signal, but in a much different way.
A strong signal sounds like, “We are failing our customers, and we have to do something to be able to meet their service-level agreements or we risk losing them!” Even though you may have questions, you are not going to have any trouble discerning what’s on their mind and what they believe they need. At that level of candor, getting more information from your contacts won’t be a problem. That candor is also an important sign that you are building trust.
But when you ask the natural follow-up question about who is going to have to approve any decision to change suppliers, imagine that your contacts exchange worried glances before one responds, “We’ll have to get back to you on that one.” The body language alone is a strong signal, as it tells you a lot about where you are in the deal. But the words you heard are a weak signal, meaning you still need the information, and they may need your guidance in getting what they want from their senior leader, the one who only derives joy from avoiding spending money, even when it is necessary.
Interpreting the Signal
Sometimes weak signals carry a lot of information, but they leave out important context. Take this question: “How exactly would you handle a situation in which we had a service failure and needed help immediately to recover?” You know what the question means, but the signal is weak because you need more context to help your client make good decisions about their business.
Context is just as important for strong signals, the ones that tell you exactly what is on your client’s mind. Fortunately, that setting makes it much easier to get the information that would help you clarify why they’re having that problem or challenge, the different solutions available to them, and why you would recommend a certain approach.
When a signal is weak, ask questions that allow you to discern what is being said, so you can better help your contacts. When a signal is strong, recognize it, then ask questions that let you get to the heart of the matter— whether the signal comes in the form of a statement, a question, or a behavior.
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