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Cheryl J. Wachenheim, professor, NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department, Published July 09 2013

Spotlight on Economics: Listening and then some

"Seek first to understand and then be understood," wrote Steven Covey in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."

"I could never be in sales" the student said as he turned in his final exam for our agrisales class. I have heard this comment from time to time in past years, although generally during the first weeks of class. When the thought persists through to the end of the semester, it is most often because students struggle with the belief they would not be able to persevere in the face of repeated rejection.

This student had a different reason. "I simply don't have the kind of patience it would take to listen right," he said. He was referring to the emphasis sales professionals who work with our class place on "listening well." That is, listening to fully understand.

One common stereotype of a salesperson is of a pushy person who will not take no for an answer and spends considerable time telling us about his or her product or service, even one we may have no interest in purchasing and using. This is a stereotype for good reason. It is difficult, even for the most empathetic, not to share the many features and benefits of what he or she is hoping to sell and difficult to leave any features out.

Alternatively, successful salespeople, especially those who are involved in

repeated purchase situations, recognize the importance of tailoring the sales presentation to the specific customer. The salesperson can do this because he or she knows about that customer's farm or ranch, personality or buying style. This knowledge comes at a cost, but it is an investment that can pay back many times over as a partnership develops between the sales professional and the customer.

Knowledge of an operation and the operator comes from work done before a sales call and from active listening during a sales call. Here we will focus on listening.

I am reminded of the analogy of visiting the doctor before the advent of

computerized, standardized intake forms. Those were the days the nurse and even the doctor asked questions about your history and symptoms. They followed up with additional detailed questions based on your responses to the initial questions before even giving thought to offering a diagnosis. A lot can be eliminated by asking the right questions. For the doctor, what is not wrong, for the sales professional, what is not important to the customer.

Active listening is not easy, especially when one is starting out. It can be intimidating because asking questions implies information gathered will be put to use to develop a more focused presentation that often happens on the spot.

It helps to be prepared. Bring a list of questions and refer to them often.

Prepared questions will help guide the process and help alleviate the tendency to make assumptions, especially about those we know well. As such, we will be more likely to catch what has changed for the operation, operators, decision-making process and goals.

Also helpful is doing your homework before a sales call by reviewing what you know or can gather about the operation and the operator. This will help limit the number of detailed questions that have to be asked. In fact, many of the questions about the specifics of an operation you have experience with sometimes can be handled simply by asking what has changed and by asking a few clarifying and confirming questions. This means taking the time to be prepared with background information. After you complete the sales call or interview, be sure to note what you have learned so this information is available to you and others in your organization in preparation for the next call.

Finally, consider adopting your final planned question to be: "Is there anything else I should know to help you find the most appropriate value-bundle (service, product, etc.) to help you meet your goals?" Be cautioned that if the answer to this question is affirmative, it may result in additional active listening during follow-up questioning. This is a reason to ask this final planned question rather than not asking.

This all seems straightforward to implement, like parting advice from your

physician to eat healthfully and exercise. However, as well as for active

listening, for advice to be of value, you have to do it. Listening is not easy and can be especially challenging in a number of situations.

When you have a lot to say but a limited amount of time or when you have enough experience in the situation or with the customer to be able to reasonably anticipate what he or she is going to say, the value of active listening can be discounted. To alleviate your concerns about being rushed and not leaving enough time to present your solution, you may find it useful to ask for a time commitment from the customer during the initial discussion.

Active listening also can be difficult when you are hearing an objection or

complaint. Asking for additional details about a shortcoming of your product, service or you takes fortitude. Active listening takes patience and practice, but the payoff can be huge.

This is written in the context of sales, but it applies well in any situation where you will be consulting or otherwise communicating. I am reminded, as I try to sell my children on the importance of a tidy room or my students on the benefits of attending class, we all are in sales.

You can increase the efficiency and efficacy of your words by knowing what

matters to the listener. May you listen well and learn a great deal.