We teach our reps that they have two ears, one mouth, and there’s a master plan behind those proportions. But when it comes to managing your sales force, are you following that advice?  Listening was one of my management top seven in “The One Hour Sales Manager,” but if you like me prefer to talk twice as much as you listen, it can take a bit of practice.

A sales team thrives on efficiency. We need those call counts and school visits as high as possible every hour of every day. So when a rep darkens your doorway looking for a little chat, I’m sure your heart rate ramps up. Internal monologue: “Don’t you have sales to make?” But if you want a truly efficient sales organization, you need to always listen. If that rep isn’t talking to you, they might be talking to their co-worker. That cuts you out of the information loop, increases the chances for misinformation, and if it’s a complaint about company policy you could wind up with not only two reps talking instead of selling, you could wind up with two demoralized employees instead of one. Trust me, you want to be the one people talk to first about their ideas, hopes, dreams, problems, and disappointments. As an entrepreneur you don’t have a manager to set you straight or inspire your next genius idea – except for your entire staff. Listening time is priceless.

I had a fantastic Inside Sales Director with over 60 young reps under him that called me dejected one day saying, “Julie, I swear I walk in this place with a plan every morning. But no matter how early I get here, as soon as I turn my key in my office door, there’s a rep behind me waiting to follow me in for a talk.” Some days, reps tapped on his door back-to-back until the sun went down.  I told him that as much as I know he had plans for things he wanted to do to take our process forward, he earned his money just by listening to his team. Being a great listener was a gift that made him the most admired manager in the organization.

There is another listening ROI to consider. They are the only people in the organization who talk to the people that say “no” to your value proposition. Every other group is dealing with the ones using your product. In B2E selling there are a finite number of schools. We can’t afford any of them to be “nevers.” Listening to the reps, particularly asking them why they get a “no” from a prospect is some of the best market research you can get.

Listening begins with setting up an approachable environment where the conversations can happen naturally and openly. Approachability is a coveted management skill. I observe it more in patient and calm individuals, but if you don’t come by it instinctively, it can be learned. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Walk around. Just having an “open door” policy is a cop out. Go more than halfway to make it easier on your team. Make it a point to great everyone in the office daily, and say goodnight to each of them each afternoon.  That could be the opening a rep needs to start a conversation with you.
  2. Sit in on team meetings. Don’t lead every meeting you attend and listen more than you share. This allows you to learn from your team and establishes a culture that you’re open to new thoughts and feedback.
  3. When you do run meetings publish the agenda at least a full day in advance. Ask attendees to bring their ideas for various items. Then follow through by going around the room and asking them to share.
  4. Pick up the phone and call field reps. It’s lonely in the field. Impromptu calls from their boss or boss’ boss just to say hello might induce perspiration the first time around, but if they become semi-routine are extremely welcome. Just say, “How are things going out there?” If you are a sales manager with a VP or CEO that isn’t in the habit of doing this, be a facilitator. Schedule calls and even ride-alongs for that exec with your reps. The brass will thank you and come back impressed and energized.
  5. During evaluations, allow the rep 50% of the conversation. Send them a self-evaluation form a week or two before evaluations so they are prepared for the conversation. Even just two or three questions to ponder are helpful.
  6. Don’t feel you have to spontaneously solve every issue. This is about giving your team a forum to vent, think out loud, contribute, connect, and hone their message. They don’t expect you to be able to instantly react with a solution, answer, or advice, so don’t knee jerk to any type of response. “I am glad you shared that,” or, “I am going to think on that,” are satisfactory responses. Do get back to them relatively quickly when the situation requires a response. It just doesn’t need to be that second.
  7. Be empathetic and thick skinned. The reason most managers avoid giving reps an open forum is because they don’t want to hear their complaints or advice. When you practice being a good listener, you’ll see reps have less pent up in their thought pipeline to tell you, and the conversations become easier and easier to have.
  8. Seek out the still waters.  Some reps, bless them, don’t come to you with every little thing.  These are the people who by nature don’t want to be a bother, but who will most appreciate a forum to give you brief feedback.  Note when you haven’t had a chat with a particular rep in a while and take a moment to check in.

The one pitfall of being super approachable is that reps can cross the line and bring you inappropriately negative or condescending conversations about other employees. It’s part of the job to hear complaints from one employee about another, but when it gets personal, that’s not cool. Correct that straight away by saying, “Frieda, I know you are probably just blowing off steam, and I want to help you solve your issue, but we’re all a team here and that kind of language is not fair to Ursula.” And there is an art form to being “one of the guys” without being “one of the guys.” Listening is good, piling on to the conversation is not.

Put your two ears to good use today!

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