Why You Must Master Active Listening Skills

Jeff Cochran


Effective communication can be hard to achieve, and for many it takes lots of practice. Active listening is one of the key components of communication, especially in negotiations. To make the most of a negotiation, you must understand every party’s wants and needs. Here are some simple tips for becoming a better listener and improving your communication skills:


  1. Show Genuine Interest.

Everyone comes into a negotiation wanting something. It can be hard to show a genuine interest in another party’s needs, especially when you’re focused on getting what you want out of an interaction. However, in order for a negotiation to run smoothly, you must show an interest in how the other party is feeling. You can achieve this by emotion-labeling (i.e., acknowledging the other party’s emotions as they experience them) and paraphrasing their thoughts. This shows that you’re committed to a resolution that benefits them, as well as yourself.

  1. Ask Probing Questions.

Using open-ended questions helps the active listening process by understanding a client’s needs and wants. It also encourages the client to speak longer, which provides more insight and perspective into their side of the negotiation. This better positions you to effectively respond to their needs, while still getting what you want.

You can also facilitate this process by using “minimal encouragers.” These are statements like “okay,” “I see,” and “Go on.” While they may not seem like much, they go a long way in establishing a rapport, and it encourages the other party to keep speaking.

  1. Summarize.

Summarizing has a couple of different benefits. First, it wraps up everything the person said, which shows that you’ve been listening and acknowledges their wants and needs. This helps provide validation to your client. Secondly, it provides a “stalling” tactic as you formulate your response. It buys you extra time and helps you counter, beginning the process of negotiation.

Research shows that people spend 60% of a conversation speaking about themselves. This isn’t altogether surprising, as it’s a subject in which we’re comfortable. However, it doesn’t help you much in a negotiation, since you end up talking about what you want, instead of understanding your client’s needs and wants.

By letting your client talk about their needs and wants, you motivate them and provide them with encouragement. Active listening, once you achieve it, helps your client gain a positive impression of both you and your company. By practicing good listening techniques, you can become a more successful negotiator.


Asking The Right Questions

Jeff Cochran


Asking The Right Questions Means Changing How We Listen

We all want to seal the deal – to close the sale when we’re talking to a potential client. To that end, the questions we ask as salespeople often turn out to be the questions with answers we want to hear. This means that we aren’t clearly listening to our clients. So, while you may close the sale with this technique, you won’t come away with any new insights or a stronger relationship with your client. Asking the right questions can change that.


There Are No Stupid Questions…

 …Except maybe the ones you already know the answer to. Don’t waste your time, or your customers’ time, with questions to which you already know the answers. This doesn’t mean not to ask questions, however. You should ask plenty of those. And each answer should lead you to a new question. Find out what difficulties your clients are having with a project. Ask them about their solutions. Test out these questions next time you talk to a client:

  • What projects are your top priorities right now?
  • What difficulties are you having with those projects?
  • How are you managing those problems?
  • What is the timeline for that project?
  • Who is working on the project?
  • How were those individuals chosen?

Asking open-ended questions will get you the furthest when talking to clients. Give them time to discuss their situations. This not only provides you with information about your client, but it also creates a relationship of trust between you and them. That kind of relationship will encourage your clients to come to you next time they have a problem because they know you will listen thoroughly and try to come to an answer collaboratively.


Close Listening And Listening Closely 

If you are asking the right questions, then there are only two other things you need to do in order to build an effective bond between yourself and your clients. The first is close listening. This means asking clarifying questions. Because, as it turns out, good listening ends up looking a lot like asking good questions. Get your clients to explain different components of their problems in more detail and practice your close listening skills.

The last tactic for more successful conversations is to listen closely. This translates into repeating back what you heard in your own words to make sure you have understood your client correctly. Tell them what you heard and then listen closely to their response. Did they affirm your understanding or correct it? Absorb this information and ask more questions. There’s no such thing as too many.

Good listening = Good Probing

Jeff Cochran


Have you ever sat in a sales planning meeting and a few minutes into it realized that you don’t know which account your manager is currently talking about?  While your coworkers have been discussing and making plans, you have been thinking about all the emails that you need to respond to and getting to your kid’s baseball game on-time tonight.  This happens all the time and to everyone; especially in our time-limited, multi-tasking society.  And not to mention with all the technological gadgets and devices that we are constantly being distracted with.  Research suggests that we remember less than 50% of what we hear.  Meaning we miss over half of everything.

However, those that excel in sales negotiation have excellent listening skills.  In order to effectively probe, listening is critical.  The more information you are able to obtain from the other side, the better your position and the greater power you hold.  However, getting more information from the other party is always a challenge.  In order to extract information, you have to probe effectively.  This involves focusing and carefully listening to what the other side is saying and telling you.  It is important to hear not only the words that another person is saying, but to understand the complete message being sent and what is being implied so you can ask appropriate follow-up questions and probe further.  It is important to focus, listen and understand.

SNI teaches a simple, but effective approach to enhance your listening skills. It is – “The Three Cs” – Connect, Consider and Confirm.  First, connect yourself either through eye contact if you are in a meeting or by using the person’s name that you are on the phone with.   Second, carefully consider your response after listening to the other person.  Pause to reflect and then formulate a response.  Don’t mentally form your comment or counter argument while they are still talking.  You can’t effectively listen if you are busy thinking.  Third, confirm what is to be discussed and what has been discussed.  Using agendas and written summaries help to prioritize and highlight important aspects, and also eliminate harmful mistakes and misunderstandings. These are just a few, easy ways to help you become a more effective listener.


The Big L

Jeff Cochran


An article by Cynthia Crossen from The Wall Street Journal a few years back reported that, “Most people speak at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, but the human brain can easily process more than 500 words a minute, leaving plenty of time for mental fidgeting.”  Herein lays one of the great obstacles to effective listening.  We have the biological capability to listen to everything, yet we often miss a lot of information because we get bored or disinterested.

In a negotiation, the last thing you want to do is lose out on information.  Everything the other side says is potentially valuable to help you make a deal.  Let the other side talk as much as they want.  Listen between the lines to what is said and what is omitted.  Listen for nuance and emotion.  Listen with your eyes to see their mannerisms and comfort level with each topic.  All the material you need to make the deal is there, it’s just up to you to gather it.

When it is your time to speak, make what you say count.  Don’t feel obligated to match the amount of time they spoke for.  Say what you need to frame the issues and keep moving forward on the key issues of the negotiation.  The less you say, the more others will remember.

Think of it this way: the best negotiators aren’t only smooth talkers, they’re smooth listeners too.

To read the article from the Wall Street Journal by Cynthia Crossen entitled “From Talk Shows to Offices, America Lacks Good Listeners”, click here

Negotiating for a Used Car – Step 2: Probe

Jeff Cochran


In the second part of our three part series on negotiating the purchase of a used car, we will teach you how to effectively probe. After preparing for your car purchase, you need to dig for information behind the other side’s position– determine the real interests or needs of the private seller/dealer– this is what probing is all about.

The following ten questions should always be asked when purchasing a used car:

i. Why is this car priced above (or below) the Kelly/Edmunds Value?

ii. How long have you had this car on the lot?

iii. Do you have the factory report? (indicates recalls or warranty repairs)

iv. Do you have the vehicle history report? (indicates history based on VIN #)

v. Do you have the repair history report? (indicates major/minor repairs)

vi. Can I see the actual inspection ticket? (indicates who/what where/when of inspection)

vii. Is the vehicle certified? What is the extended warranty?

viii. What is the dealer warranty? 30 days? 60 days? 90 days?

ix. What additional services do you offer? Free towing? Free Oil?

x. Have you offered or are you planning to offer any specials? Holiday Sales?

Asking these questions will help you in three ways: 1) it will help you understand the condition of the car; 2) it will help you determine what support the dealer is willing to provide after the sale; 3) it will help you establish reasons for price reductions moving into the Propose phase of the negotiation.

Trust By Verify with Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran


Trust by verify, it sounds good in theory, but how can it really be implemented? At SNI, we typically advise our clients not to make adjustments to their prices when a potential buyer claims that one of their competitors is cheaper until they see hard evidence.

I asked my colleague, Jeff Cochran, for his thoughts, and with a chuckle he said he could tell me a story about how he recently implemented it.

I had a project; I needed to get my driveway paved. Being a negotiator, I knew that I needed to do good preparation. The first step in preparing was to collect estimates so that I would have alternatives. Therefore, I contacted three contractors, provided them with the details of the project, and collected estimates. Of course, all three estimates were different. The most and least expensive estimates were significantly different. The first contractor I called was an acquaintance. He gave me an estimate of $8,500 to do the job. The second estimate came from a contractor who I found from an ad in my local paper. His estimate for the project was $7,500. Lastly, there was a sign on the driveway up the road. When I called the number on the sign to inquire about the cost of my project, I got an estimate of only $6,000.

Naturally, I was inclined to choose the least expensive contractor. However, his offer seemed too good to be true. I did some research, and sure enough, I found out that cheaper offers like the one I received for $6,000 raise a major concern that the contractor would skimp on materials. Not using the correct amount of asphalt on the driveway could lead to major problems.

I went back to all three contractors and asked for the specifications on the work they would be doing. All three indicated that they would use four and a half inches of blacktop. Since the first contractor at $8,500 was an acquaintance, I went to him to give him right of last refusal. I informed him that one of his competitors was willing to do the job for $6,000, $2,500 least than his estimate.  I was very surprised with his response because he told me that there was no way for him to drop his price without losing money on the job. In turn, I asked him how come his competitor could do the job for $6,000? His response was that the competitor would most likely skimp on materials and do a bad job.

It was the end of the summer and I wanted to get this project done while the weather was still nice. How could I choose the least expensive contractor but know for certain that he was going to do quality work? I had him put in writing a detailed description of the work he was going to be doing and the specs that needed to be met. I then confirmed with him that what he had written is what he planned to deliver. Still, I remained a bit skeptical. Just his word alone didn’t seem like enough. Thinking back on my negotiations skills, I thought trust but verify. I went back to the contractor who would have cost me $8,500 and asked him if for $200 he could have one of his guys supervise the work of the least expensive contractor, guaranteeing that he delivered what he said he was going to deliver.

It was a good thing I did! In the end, the contractor I opted to go with for $6,000 did not have enough asphalt to finish the job, so he suggested that he use three and a half inches of asphalt instead of the correct amount, four and a half inches, to save time and money. It was one of the hottest days of the summer. He told the inspector that he knew that they were both exhausted from a long day’s work and ready to go home. He even added that I probably would never notice the difference of an inch. He was right. How would I have ever found out until I started seeing cracks and needed to dish out an additional $2,000-3,000, if not more, to pay to repair his shortcomings?

Luckily, the inspector who I hired insisted that he do the job correctly, go back to the asphalt plant, and get another load. The $200 I paid for the inspector to be present was well worth it and it potentially saved me thousands. When I first thought about it, I wondered why he cared enough to prolong the project and make the least expensive contractor use the correct amount of asphalt. In the final analysis, it made perfect sense why the inspector would be adamant that the job gets done correctly. He was not going to let a competitor steal potential business by offering to do the “same job” for cheaper when in reality he was shorting clients.

2. Alternatives

Jeff Cochran


Employing alternatives gives you the power of options. Going into a negotiation without options is like going into battle with one weapon. What if the battering ram won’t knock the door down? Did you bring grappling hooks to flight over the walls? If not, you’re not going to get inside. Alternatives make you less dependent on one kind of deal and more open to variations. There’s no take it or leave it when you have alternatives; therefore, there are far fewer impasses. Further, knowing their alternatives may guide you in assessing their leverage.

Case and point: Carmelo Anthony’s recent negotiation with the New York Kicks is a great example of negotiation with options.

Pharmaceutical Sales: How to Stand Out

Jeff Cochran


One of the toughest sales jobs in business today is that of the pharmaceutical sales representative. There are so many barriers to the traditional process of selling…limited access, managed care, limited resources and generic drugs in a time when every patient and physician is hyper-sensitive to costs. According to SK&A Associates, a leading provider of healthcare information and research basedin Irvine CA, the number of practices that no longer see reps has increased to 38.5%

Add to that the fact that a pharmaceutical sales rep rarely gets to see the “sale” at the point of the prescribing decision – that moment is rightfully reserved for the examining room – and you can see why the pharma sales job in an increasingly demanding position. It is really an “influencing job” rather than a more tactical selling approach.

A primary care physician (who gives access) sees an average of 35 reps per week and spends less than 90 seconds with each rep on average. What can reasonably be accomplished in 90 seconds in terms of effective selling? Most reps use the time to do a quick detail of the product they are promoting and than try to engage the Doctor for additional time by asking questions about disease states, personal interests and patient feedback on their product. The Doctor usually gives the rep an “auto-response”, in effect telling the rep what they believe the rep wants to hear for the singular purpose of getting the rep to leave their samples and then leave the office.

This equates to a tremendous waste of time for both the rep and the physician.

We suggest that a pharmaceutical rep has to differentiate their approach in order to effectively capture a physician’s attention. We have been working with reps to develop what we call a “Doc Stopper” questioning approach. The rep grabs the attention to the physician by asking a question that defies the “auto-response” and promotes a more open and honest conversation….it does not necessarily add time to the average sales call but garners a deeper, more thoughtful response.

One rep was constantly being told by a physician that any drug in their class would work for patients presenting a particular disease state. Since there are five drugs indicated for that disease state, the rep grabbed their attention by asking “Would you agree that it makes the most sense to spread your prescribing more equally among all five products to create competition and drive down the average sales price?

The Doctor stopped for a moment, considered the question and replied that economically it made sense, but admitted that there were partcular clinical circumstances that affected her decision on which product to write for a specific patient. The Doctor went on to explain her thought process.

By asking the “Doc Stopper” question, the rep was able to move past the usual interaction and learn:

  • How the physican was actually differentiating the five drugs in the class.
  • That the presence of samples had an impact on prescribing decisions in some cases but not others.
  • That the economics of the drugs in the class had limited, if any, impact on the prescribing decision with this physician.

Pretty valuable information from a 90 second interaction, and certainly more useful than the usual message – personal connection – signature routine.

Other Doc Stopper Questions

  • How has the influx of “urgent care” facilities in the area affected your practice?
  • What are your thoughts about the changes in how we market our products?
  • How much will it cost your practice to convert your medical records to electronic files (if it becomes law)?
  • Do you find that your patients are waiting longer to come in for office visits in this economy?
  • What is your biggest business challenge today?
  • What are your thoughts on “boutique” practices?
  • How do you attract new patients to your practice? What differentiates you?

For more information on how this approach and other influencing techniques can help you make the most from every sales call, please call us at 410-662-4764.