We’ve all heard various advice on how important listening is for effective communication. Common clichés exist such as: “There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth,” or “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.”
These may be valuable tips, but as Alan Alda said in his really great book on effective communication: “Beware of tips. They don’t transform you. An experience transforms you.” So, rather than just giving you another tip, I‘d like to relay my own experience, which showed me just how important listening is in two primary areas: sales and job searching.
Listening in sales
Although my background is technical, my roles at several companies involved traveling with the sales team to visit customers. In these meetings, it can be very tempting to want to talk a lot — as though the more you tell them about your product, the more likely they are to buy it. I have personally felt the temptation to keep talking about the benefits of my product until they were ready to buy, thinking to myself “If they aren’t ready to buy, then they just haven’t heard the right feature yet.”
Maybe I don’t know what the right feature is…
This was particularly true for my last company, where we were selling laser-based combustion diagnostic equipment into industrial settings like steel plants and petrochemical plants. These were not simple, low-cost devices, but complex systems that sold for a fairly high price. In these situations, our technology was a brand-new application in their field. Convincing them to buy was not about showing them that our product was better than a competitor’s, because there was no competitor to displace. We had to show them that they would benefit from this new diagnostic device that they didn’t even know about before we came along.
Selling them on our system was a real challenge, because most of these customers had been running their plants just fine before we came along. Their position when we first arrived was often “Why do we need you?” It was very tempting to want to launch right into a discussion of the features and benefits analysis that we had done, and to show them that we could save them money.
I learned to shut up and listen
I quickly realized that they knew much more about their application than I did, and that it was too easy for me to say something that sounded naive. I learned that if I shut up and listened for a while, they were often happy to talk in detail about how their processes worked. If I listened longer, they would begin to talk about the problems they had. Only then could I craft a helpful response that properly aligned my product with their actual needs. When we were successful in getting a customer to place an order, it was because we had listened carefully, identified their need, and then explained how our product could help them. Never was it because we had talked them into submission.
Sometimes, it became clear as I listened that there was not good alignment with their problems and our solution, because they were already doing a great job in the areas where we could help. In those cases, we thanked them and left. There was no point in trying to sell them on something they didn’t need. I’d learned from earlier experiences that although pushing hard may allow the conversation to continue for weeks or even months, it would ultimately still result in the conclusion that they didn’t need what we were selling. By then we had wasted time and effort that could have been spent identifying new potential customers.
Listening in a job search
Listening more than you talk is also very important when you are looking for a job. After all, job searching is ultimately a matter of selling yourself. But as I say when coaching early-career scientists and engineers, you don’t get a job just because your skills and experiences complete the hiring manager’s checklist adequately.
You get a job because you convince them you can solve their problems. And you can’t convince them you can solve their problems until you fully understand what those problems are. To do that, you need to listen. Getting a job in academia may be about demonstrating your expertise with a long list of accomplishments (see my post on CVs vs resumes) but getting a job in an industry is all about how you can help them.
What ‘feature’ do they need?
The experience that drove this home for me was getting the job with that company that sold combustion diagnostic equipment into industrial applications. The position that they were looking for was an Applications Manager. The job was to design and create a user interface for their sophisticated laser combustion monitors so that plant operators could understand and use the system.
At first glance, this seemed to be a job for a software engineer. My qualifications and experience commercializing laser-based products didn’t seem to be a good fit. But rather than walk away from the job opening, I arranged a phone call with the hiring manager and worked to fully understand the problem they were trying to solve. Rather than trying to convince him how great I was, I asked a few questions and just listened. Sure, they said they needed someone to design a user interface, but was that really the core of the problem?
What is the job really about?
As I spoke with the hiring manager, I realized that the real problem was that operators didn’t understand how the system worked, or why it might help them do their jobs. I understood that an important part of solving the problem was to go meet with plant operators and understand how they did their jobs, and how their other instruments delivered information to them. It would also require helping them understand, in terms that they related to, what problems we could help them with, and what actions it would require from them. This job really wasn’t about software engineering at all!
I had spent a lot of time helping people understand science and technology, starting with being a Teaching Assistant (TA) as a grad student, and continuing through much of my time traveling with sales teams. These experiences trained me to listen to people, and to work to truly understand what they needed and how we could help. From this perspective, the position clearly fit me very well! I could hire a junior software engineer to do the user interface coding, but the bulk of it required communication and synthesis skills, which had become my expertise!
Armed with this insight, I went back to the hiring manager and outlined how I would approach solving this problem, and I threw in a few stories from my past that highlighted the relevant skills I would need. This communicated to him that I had the ability to solve their problem, and I got the job.
The power of an experience
This experience really drove home for me how important it is to listen when looking for a job. The impression it made on me was great enough that I have now developed this habit of listening in everything I do. A simple tip would never have had this impact. Now, rather than trying to dazzle people with my skills and experience, I take it a bit slower and listen instead. Once I understand the situation, I begin speaking with the confidence that I can (most likely) solve their problem. It’s a much better approach.
Take the time to listen more than you talk, and you will be in a much better place to make a sale.
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