Sales Success: Learn to Listen like a Jazz Musician

You’re on your way to an important meeting. Let’s say it’s with a prospect your company has been pursuing for two years and the COO has agreed to meet with you. You know she’s got a trough of problems – that’s what your sales team has found out so far, at least.Listen like a jazz musician

You’ve got an hour-long drive. You call your mate to check in. Your eastern regional sales manager calls because two of his salespeople just won big deals. You get stuck in lunchtime traffic at the bridge. You check your Blackberry (c’mon, admit you do). You turn on the news and none of it is good. You switch to a music station. As usual, none of that stuff is good either. You arrive at your destination, wait for fifteen minutes in the lobby, check your Blackberry three more times, and then finally go to your meeting. Sound familiar? Is it any wonder that listening skills are at a premium in the 21st century?

This post isn’t about “listening skills” – nodding at the prospective customer while she answers your questions, repeating what she says and using her name, so that you’ve indicated that you’ve heard her (and hoping you did). It isn’t about quieting the noise in your head either. You didn’t really need to check your Blackberry six times in the last hour, did you? And, it isn’t about a technique to try and reconstruct that most important morsel of information your prospect has just told you, that you’ve just missed while your brain has been multi-tasking. You know, the one tidbit that means the difference between a $200K sale and a $2M sale. You’re a senior sales executive – a trained professional! You know this stuff by now.

Let me turn you onto a little tip, something that you may not know unless you happen to play jazz, blues or some other type of improvisational music. This tip will perhaps help you quiet your brain and get the bigger deal that solves all of your prospect’s problems.

Think of a great jazz show you’ve attended. If you haven’t been to one, then go, they’re good for you. Then, come back and read this again.

What distinguishes a great jazz performance from a good one is the listening skill, not the playing skill of each musician. In this day and age, any musician you hear on stage is highly skilled at playing their instrument, but many of the musicians you hear are lousy listeners. The great stuff that’s making you bob your head and dance in your seat is the interplay between the musicians – the subtle adjusting, reacting, leading, and inventing that goes on chorus after chorus. (For all you non-musicians, a chorus is each time the song goes around.) Each solo you hear is a product of both individual invention and supportive collaboration.

All of this fantastic interplay is grounded in intuition. This intuition isn’t something these musicians were born with. Their intuition was developed by paying attention, in other words listening, to what’s going on around them; absorbing the mood of the piece, moving to the rhythm, and inventing counter-melodies to something the bass player or singer might be doing at that moment. We jazz musicians call this improvisation, but really it is an intuitive management of the situation combined with an invention – original or not – that suits it.

One additional point: When you find yourself bored or yawning during one of these shows, it most likely isn’t that you don’t like jazz, or that you haven’t gotten enough sleep the night before. It’s because the musicians on stage aren’t there. They’re playing licks that they’ve played a thousand times in the same way and even though you may not have heard those notes in that particular way, the notes lack energy and creativity. These licks are not born of the moment, they are standard issue notes grounded in past years of meticulous practice and current situational distraction. It’s the soloist’s stock marketing material. No wonder you’re bored, who isn’t?

So what does this have to do with a sales call? The short answer is everything. As you know by now, anything can and does happen during these calls. Whatever you’ve heard before, or heard from your team is only information. What goes on during a sales call is all possibility. There is a rhythm and a mood to each one of these situations that calls for intuitive management and invention, energy and creativity.

To play like a jazz soloist, you need to listen like a jazz musician. Don’t rely on your licks, your marketing material, and your pre-planned competitive differentiation strategy. If you’re good at that stuff, you’ll get the $200K deal. When you’re on, you need to forget that stuff, and forget the jibber-jabber on your Blackberry as well. Key into the people in the room. Listen, absorb, react, and observe, and then step out and “take a solo” that’s driven by your intuition. That’s the difference between a good and great performance.

Peter Krammer is Managing Partner of ELA Consulting Group, co-author of Let Your Music Soar with Corky Siegel, and a jazz guitarist.

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