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The Consultant’s Conundrum: How To Improve Your Active Listening Skills

The Consultant’s Conundrum: How To Improve Your Active Listening Skills

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
5 min read

There’s an opinion in consulting circles that you need to persuade people in order to sell them anything. You know – twist their arm into doing something they don’t want to do.

People believe that’s the way to sell their services.

I say self-discovery and active listening skills are much more potent.

So, rather than pitching and “convincing,” becoming an active listener is a much better approach to consulting.

As a consultant, you get paid for what you know, and you get paid for applying what you know in an effective way that improves your client’s condition.

Leadership as a consultant means more listening to your clients’ problems than talking about your solution.

Listening helps you learn and uncover your clients’ real problems, which is something you won’t hear if you pitch your ideas right away.

I believe that embedded in your advice are solutions to the problems your clients are facing; so, whatever the problem is that they have today, there must be some way to at least improve it. But you can’t do that by monopolizing the conversation.

And therein lies The Consultant’s Conundrum: you get paid for your useful advice, but in the sales discovery process it’s better to listen and not give advice at all.

In this way, selling isn’t just about talking or pitching.

Truth is selling is more about listening than talking.

So let’s try to dispel the myth that selling is about talking.


This Article Talks About

Why Should You Listen More?

Active listening skills are crucial to establishing a good relationship with your clients.

Active listening helps you understand your client’s situation. Then when you talk, your words will be more impactful. Also, if you’re an active listener, you can provide tailored advice to what your clients really need in order to solve their problems.

This culminates in only one conclusion: having detailed information about your client is the only way you can lead them to make an informed decision to buy. That is the essence of a sale.

You can’t run your discovery process unless you listen effectively. But, to listen, you need one big thing: empathy.

Empathy helps your discovery process.

For starters, you can’t discover without empathy.

You can’t be empathetic without understanding, and you can’t understand without listening.

Do you see a pattern here?

This is, in a nutshell, The Consultant’s Conundrum.

Strategies To Overcome The Consultant’s Conundrum

My motto is Serve, Don’t Sell.

Remember that part of serving is listening, and part of serving is talking and advising, which is the whole tension that creates The Consultant’s Conundrum.

Step 1 to overcome it: acknowledge that part of serving is listening, and part of serving is talking. Both are necessary.

Divide The Sales Process Into Parts

Any sale should be divided into its constituent parts or stages. These parts comprise a process, and that process is your entire sales process or sales playbook.

Said another way, your sales process is:

The things you do and the order that you do them in to help your potential client make an informed decision about whether or not they want to work with you.

The constituent parts of the sales process are as follows.

Part 1: Discovery

Discovery is the information-gathering phase. You’ll also do some qualifying during discovery. Here, you’ll be demonstrating your expertise and your consulting style even though you’re listening rather than talking the majority of the time.

And you do that by asking good, thoughtful, insightful questions that help your clients understand and think about their situation in a different way. Even if you don’t talk, you’ll be demonstrating your expertise by asking good questions.

I advise you to listen 80% and talk only 20% of the time during the discovery process.

Part 2: Offer

Here’s when you start talking more. This is the part where you show the client what you can do for them. Aim at creating a rich conversation full of information and data.

Part 3: Ask For Business

If you’ve gotten this far and you genuinely believe you can help your client, ask for the business. This can be uncomfortable and unnatural at first, but keep in mind that this is an act of caring. By working with someone, you can help them improve their situation. It’s okay to tell them that directly and ask for a decision.

Practice Your Active Listening Skills

Obviously, if you’re going to be listening so much, you should have a plan and structure for the types of questions that you will ask. Having that plan and structure in place enables you to practice your active listening skills (and be an active listener).

When you’re on a sales call, you’re going to be asking questions, and your potential client probably won’t have a hard time answering them. Most people enjoy talking about themselves, so it’ll feel totally natural to the other person to answer so many questions, even though you may feel awkward about it in the beginning.

It might be helpful to think about it in terms of talking only 20% of the time and listening about 80% of the time.

Ask Powerful Follow Up Questions

You need to listen actively to actually ask the right questions. But most importantly, you need to be present. Give your client your undivided attention throughout the call.

That means putting your devices, your email, your computer – all distractions! – in do not disturb mode. Close your browser tabs. Shut out social media. Be present.

A good technique you can use to increase the impact of your conversations is reflective listening or mirroring. This is a simple method.

When someone says something you can paraphrase back and say: “what I understand you’re saying is…” If they agree, you know you’re on the same page. If not, dig a little deeper to understand what they’re thinking.

It’s not enough to simply talk or to simply listen. There needs to be a feedback component of the communication so that both parties fully understand each other. Asking powerful follow-up questions is one of the most important tools in your sales toolkit.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my tech tools, but asking follow-up questions is way more important than any tech tool I could use.

Here’s a great follow-up question and I’ll give this one for free just because you’re awesome.

Are you ready?

Ask your clients: “can you tell me more about that?”

Let me use an example:

I had a call today with someone who told me that the owner of her company has historically done all of the business development and, in passing, she said: “so, you know, there’s nothing that we’re doing that’s proactive right now to win new business,” and she moved on to the next topic.

When she finished talking, I came up with a follow-up question that both helped the client know we were on the same page and helped me clarify her issues and our conversation really took off from there.

And it was this: “Nothing is proactive right now….what proactive steps do you wish you were taking?”

Final Thoughts

In a nutshell, being a consultant means applying what you know to improve your client’s condition, and you don’t do that by pushing your services. On the contrary, you do it by listening. Active listening is one of the main tools in a consultant’s toolbox and it’s also the best way to overcome The Consultant’s Conundrum.

  • The sales process is not unidimensional; in fact, it’s divided into parts
  • Focus on listening during the discovery call
  • Ask powerful follow-up questions