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Exploring active listening in B2B sales meetings
Published : 15.04.2019

Abstract

We seek to explore how active empathic listening manifests in real-life byer-seller interactions and how such salesperson behaviours contribute to the success of the sales meeting. To do so, we analyse video-recorded authentic B2B sales meetings and customer exit interviews. We show direct interaction excerpts to support our analysis. The study finds three manifestations of active empathic listening that contribute to initial meeting success: continuing the customer’s line of thought, reflecting back, and using open questions. Our findings encourage salespeople to consider updating their objectives towards the initial customer meetings. We also provide recommendations for recruiters and sales managers.

Background and recap of the extant body of knowledge

Listening to and understanding customers in an in-depth level has become a precondition for success in dynamic market environment. Practitioners worry about how to advance a prospective sales case from initial exploration stage. Given the importance of social interaction quality in sales, it is surprising to note the scarcity of empirical research into B2B sales interactions (Ahearne et al., 2007; Evans et al., 2012). It remains under-explained how salesperson listening skills contribute to sales meeting success and how such behaviours manifest.

In selling complex services and solutions, value is largely co-created with the customer through interactions that help the customer to better understand his or her environment and to find ways to solve problems and improve operations (Grönroos, 2012). Both the customer and the salesperson have major roles, and they must interact and share knowledge to co-create this value. In what follows, they make the ability to interact key to success. This scenario also requires more trust and detailed enough sharing of information (Haas et al., 2012; Vargo and Lusch, 2008). Sales scholars acknowledge the importance of active listening skills for successful professional selling (e.g., Pryor et al., 2013; Ramsey and Sohi, 1997). Active listening, stemming from psychological background (Rogers, 1951), includes two essential parts: listener orientation and reflective technique. The deeper implication of active listening is the willingness to listen in order to form meaning. Listener orientation contains the listener’s personality and attitude. Listener orientation should include empathy, respect, acceptance, congruence, concreteness, and undivided attention (Rogers, 1951; Rogers and Farson, 1979). The commonly-used definition of listening in sales contexts includes three parts: the selective act of physical sensing, mental processing and responding to verbal and/or nonverbal messages (Ramsey and Sohi, 1997). A complex cognitive, affective and behavioral activity (Bergeron, 2004), good listening by salespersons has been correlated with customer orientation (Thakor and Joshi, 2005), trust (Drollinger and Comer, 2013; Ramsey and Sohi, 1997), satisfaction in buyer/seller working relationships (Aggarwal et al., 2005), sales performance, and service quality (Bergeron, 2004).

Communication in sales meetings includes both expression (speaking) and listening reception (listening). Sales skills trainings often focus more on expressions, whereas in the literature, listening is mentioned as a significant part of a salesperson’s emotional and communication skills (Comer and Drollinger, 1999). By using active empathic listening, the listener communicates empathy and emotions – ensuring that the listener recognizes the speaker’s point of view. By showing empathy, the listener indicates understanding, not only of the main message but also of the emotions, feelings and meanings surrounding the topic (Comer and Drollinger, 1999). Despite evidence showing that listening is required for successful sales, the literature largely overlooks the multifaceted characteristic of active empathic listening (Pryor et al., 2013; Drollinger and Comer, 2013). Sofar, the mechanism how good or insufficient listening manifests in practice, and how it influences customer, remains under-explored.

Methodology

This inductive qualitative study includes two parts, each using unique data sets and analysis methods: 11 video-recorded, authentic B2B sales meetings along with customer interviews conducted right/soon after customers exit from the sales meeting. Table 1 provides an overview of the sample, including multinational companies operating in professional services and other knowledge intensive business services (KIBS).

Table I Dataset information

NCompany name/industrySizeNo. of sales-peopleIndustry of the buyer companySizeNo. of buyersCustomer exit interview done (yes/no)
1Business services2SME1MediaLarge1Yes
2Business services5SME1  TelecomLarge1Yes
3ICTA solutions1Large1LogisticsLarge1Yes
4ICTA solutions2Large2Logistics  Large2Yes
5ICTA solutions3Large1MachineryLarge1Yes
6ICTA solutions4Large1RecyclingSME2Yes
7ICTA solutions5Large2ConsultancyLarge2Yes
8ICTB solutions1SME1City adminLarge1Yes
9ICTB solutions2SME1EducationLarge1Yes
10HR services2Large4Mining technologyLarge1Yes
11HR services5Large1ConstructionSME1Yes

Company selection was based on convenience sampling. Managers from each company encouraged all salespeople within the selected businesses to participate, motivating data collection from the top-down. Using theoretical sampling (Creswell, 2007) within each firm, we continued data collection until there was reasonable saturation in terms of differences and similarities in the interaction phenomenon. Thus, we assume that there was reasonable variation in the characteristics of our sample. Because theory regarding the affective side of B2B sales interactions is largely under-developed, we employ a grounded theory approach for our research (e.g., Johnson, 2015, Strauss and Corbin, 1998). As is typical for grounded theory methodology, the study employs an open-ended and exploratory data analysis process. During the analysis, we sought to minimize the risk of subjective interpretation (Pope, 2007) by working together as a group of researchers analysing the data to find regularities and patterns while recording emerging topics or themes. The research team met several times during the process to reach consensus, a shared “truth” regarding analysis findings. While there were no hypotheses a priori, patterns emerged from the data reflecting the salespeople’s and customers’ interactional behaviour.

Part 1 – Qualitative analysis of authentic video-recorded sales calls

In part 1, we sought to explore salesperson-customer interactions from the active empathic listening perspective. Table 1 lists the video-recorded data used in this analysis. The videos were recorded without additional persons in the room, always assuring full anonymity. We used a legally binding research contract. Later on, we transcribed videos using a professional transcription service. Using a multimodal qualitative data analysis technique with authentic video-recorded B2B sales calls, we took into account the content of conversation, voice tone, gestures, and body language. We observed customer reactions to such salesperson behaviours.

Part 2 – Exit interviews with customers

The purpose of the second part of the analysis was to validate the researchers’ interpretations of the influence of listening behaviours on customer. To do so, we asked customers direct questions in brief exit interviews conducted face-to-face once the video-recordings were finished.  This step allowed us to compare the findings from our direct observations and customers’ perceived experiences of salesperson listening. Part 2 data included one exit interview for each of the participants of the 11 video-recorded sales meetings. Lasting 10-30 minutes, the interviews were conducted via telephone or face-to-face within one or two days of the sales meeting, also recorded and transcribed. Participants were asked to recall the meeting and to provide their thoughts on how it went, what feelings they had and how they were threated in their own words.

Preliminary findings

Our findings highlight that the active empathic listening skills are hard for salespeople to implement into practice, even if they would self-evaluate being good at listening customers. Moreover, our video and interview data suggests that customers can tell how good listeners and performers salespeople are, as customer’s subjective feeling is often decisive for the continuation. Many customers openly discussed the emotional perceptions influencing their willingness to either continue or quit the sales process. Next, we elaborate on the salesperson listening behaviour findings based on the video analysis and exit interviews with customers. We suggest and explain three categories in salesperson listening behaviours in Table 2.

Table II Summary of salesperson active empathic listening indicators

Behaviour observedIndicators of the behaviour

 

 

Suggested impact on customer’s emotional responses
Active empathic listeningContinuing the customer’s line of thought vs. ignoring

 

 

Reflecting the customer’s messages back to them

 

Using statements vs. open questions

Feeling of being heard and appreciated vs. ignored

 

 

Feeling of being exhausted vs. enthusiastic

 

Degree of confidence and security in collaboration

We found three repeating manifestations of active empathic listening: continuing the customer’s line of thought vs. ignoring it, reflecting back to the customer, and using statements vs. open questions. The best performing salespeople were able to demonstrate positive behaviours in all three categories of active empathic listening. Not only talk but also gestures and body language showing customer oriented attitude of the salesperson. We also discovered that salespeople’s abilities in active listening vary a lot. The best ones were able to adapt to various customers, whereas most individuals seemed to repeat their more stable interactional style from one meeting to another. We also found that even if salespeople mentioned being good at listening to customers, their listening often seemed superficial. Situations of superficial behaviour and ignoring the customer’s message occurred numerous times. Next, due to the length limit of the paper, we show one example episode of a successful sales interaction, and one example of a failed interaction. One example of successful manifestation of active empathic listening took place in a meeting between the HR services seller and a construction customer. The excerpt 1 shows a short episode of early part of that meeting.

(Excerpt 1):

1 C:  (customer talks based on earlier experience at the competitor). In their uniform, work safety
2       permits OK. ID card OK. Everything is like, it’s just, from you we don’t get people who aren’t
3      capable… We get exactly what we need from you, and we don’t need worry. Mmhmm.

[The customer snaps his fingers to emphasize his message, the salesperson remains alert and keeps eye contact.]

4 SP: …Exactly. That’s just how it is. And then sometimes it might depend on how personalities mesh.

[SP leans over towards the customer and convinces C with her gaze. C leans suddenly towards SP, fixing his eyes on hers and agrees.]

5 C:    Totally.

6 SP:   Like the person could be a good worker but something about them just bugs you.

7 C:    Something’s wrong.

8 SP: …and it’s hard to get through to them.
[SP keeps eye contact and smiles warmly]

9 C:    That’s how it is.

10 SP: But even in that situation just remember to call me right away and tell me, this isn’t
11        working. So look for someone else, if it turns out that way. We have that…quality warranty
12        there. So it’s a good time to try then.

13 C:   Yes. There you see what the deal is, how they do and, there are probably the biggest of these,
14        coming up if they come up, biggest renovations here…

15 SP: For sure. What by the way is the make-up of that group of employees?

16 C:  Here we have, um, 80 percent Estonians, or well let’s say 70 % and the rest are Finns.

17 SP: Is it like some group of subcontractors or?

Here, the SP manifested behaviours of reflecting back on her own words, thus showing that she understood the customer. The SP continued customer’s line of interest, instead of jumping back to her own procedure. As a consequence, the customer was well involved and seemed satisfied with the interaction. In the exit interview, the customer told: ”It was a really good meeting. I like this kind of salesperson. She was genuine, was able to speak in her own words, understood my thoughts perfectly. She listened to what I said and answered well…  I was impressed and definitely will turn to this person.”, suggesting that the active listening skills led to a deal. Our data revealed major differences in salespeople’s active listening behaviours. The following excerpt 2 is a short episode of 1,5 hours long initial sales meeting between IT solutions seller and a manufacturing purchasing director.

(Excerpt 2):

1 SP: [minutes long turn using PP presentation]…and then again personal printers, well we can include
2       them in the reporting, but in practice they work quite independently so we aim to get rid of them

[The customer yawns twice and looks away, the salesperson doesn’t react. The SP occasionally searches for words while looking to the right or left up toward the ceiling]

3       …but then for example there are places like terminals and stuff where the point is just to get the
4       printout out, so for those direct printing is fine in a multifunction printer or then a normal printer.
5       Like we have customers who have 500 machines and of those about 200 are… And then if there’s
6       one guy working somewhere it doesn’t make any sense that he’d have some badge that he frees up
7       the printer for his own work always.

8 C:  No there isn’t and we probably have to think just like you said about the user profile to think
9     about it…

10 SP: Yes yes.

11 C: .that that would maybe be [pointing towards the PP presentation] the main office and maybe
12       the Americans so-called biggest offices and then if you think of different user profiles there are
13       those that are purely factories or something.

[while customer is speaking, the SP sighs slightly and turns back to continue his explanation to the presentation wall.]

14 C:   .support..service sites.

15 SP:  Yes yes.

[SP didn’t respond to customer’s turn, but continues his own speech]

16 SP: and then the one which is a key selling point, the benefit of that is that with this badge you can
17        if you visit different offices, you can if you take here if you visit in town here and then go to the
18        capitol to some site or, in Stockholm you can do it there. And a big advantage is that…
[SP continues his long turn without pausing for couple of more minutes]

In this sales meeting, the SP missed to read and respond to the customer. The SP manifested artificial listening, not genuinely orienting to the customer. As a sign, he interrupted the customer’s turns many times and answered: ”yes, yes” before the customer finished, and immediately continued his own presentation without tacking customer’s issue. Customer started to look anxious and frustrated. In the exit interview, the customer said: ” At times, the meeting proceeded slowly… All the parts presented and discussed didn’t really interest me… it was sometimes kind of ‘half-forced’ listening for me.”

We have showed active listening manifestations that seem to influence customers’ emotions and the overall trajectory and success of the sales meeting. We argue that these three active listening behaviours (Table 2) influence the customer’s energy level and feelings of confidence in collaboration. Reflecting back and using open questions and the recap technique provides the customer a feeling of being heard, appreciated and understood (exit interviews), which builds trust and confidence that the salesperson and customer have shared understanding and meanings, thus encouraging business collaboration. Therefore, our initial analysis suggests that customer feeling in the initial meeting largely determines the success of the meeting. And feeling in turn, largely stems from the salesperson’s active empathic listening skills.

Discussion

This study points out that some salespeople have the ability to use active empathic listening behaviours to create an open and constructive atmosphere during the sales meetings, whereas others seem to miss these skills, leading to more insecure and suspicious customer feelings. Active empathic listening manifestations can allow a salesperson to engender desired reactions and emotions in a customer. Thus, our findings encourage salespeople to consider updating their objectives towards the initial customer meetings. It may be effective to focus on building emotional connection and constructive atmosphere through active empathic listening. This can pave the way for successful collaboration, in-depth info sharing and sales deals later on.

The research findings indicate that external observers can easily recognize emotional reactions or signals, while the salesperson involved in the actual situation often misses them. Thus, it is recommended that companies apply methods that allow interactional behaviour to be visible for colleagues and managers in order to achieve learning together. This study also emphasizes the importance of salesperson recruiting and evaluation processes. To evaluate salesperson performance in this matter, companies should consider using either real-life customer encounters or simulated role plays to make their evaluations. This study has theoretical implications that have the potential to impact the way that salesperson-customer interactions are understood. The methodology – authentic B2B sales calls recorded and analysed and subsequently matched with exit interviews – was able to shed light on several salesperson behaviours that are commonly discussed but rarely directly observed. Indeed, video allowed us to observe discrepancies between the salesperson’s perception of ability and the actual demonstrated ability. As is typical in qualitative research, these findings are valid in the context studied. Future work should consider testing these results in a broader spectrum. As our data comes from complex B2B service and solutions businesses, future research may consider testing the findings in more traditional and simpler sales situations. Future research should also examine how these behaviours may manifest and influence in technology mediated customer interaction.


REFERENCES ARE AVAILABLE FROM ANY OF THE AUTHORS UPON REQUEST

Timo Kaski, Ph.D., Research Manager, Sales and Services, Haaga-Helia university of applied sciences, Ratapihantie 13, 00520 Helsinki, FINLAND. E-mail: timo.kaski@haaga-helia.fi, Tel. +358-40-488 7594.

Martina Roos-Salmi, M.Sc, Ph.D. cand, Haaga-Helia university of applied sciences, Business programmes, Ratapihantie 13, 00520 Helsinki, Finland. E-mail: martiina.roos-salmi@haaga-helia.fi

Yvonne Karsten, M.A., Senior Lecturer, Department of Speech, Interaction and Drama education, Snellman Institute, Puuskakuja 4, 00850 Helsinki, FINLAND. E-mail: yvonne.karsten@snellmaninstitute.fi

Suvi Starck, B.Sc, MBA, Haaga-Helia university of applied sciences, Department of Research and Innovation, Ratapihantie 13, 00520 Helsinki, FINLAND, E-mail: suvi.starck@haaga-helia.fi