Two of the most important things you can do to be successful in sales are to plan your sales calls and to listen carefully to your customer. But, as in so much in life, too much of a good thing may actually reduce your sales effectiveness. When you listen too intently for the answers you want, there’s a chance you may miss other critical information.
I always begin my listening module with a brief activity in which I ask the audience to listen closely to a situation and be prepared for a test at the end of it. I carefully choose my words to ensure that I give them all the information they need to answer my question at the end, but invariably at least two thirds of the audience gets it wrong. The debrief shows them that their major mistake is made because they are focusing so closely on what they believe to be the relevant information that they miss the bit they need.
Does this sound familiar? Have you ever been in a sales call and been so intent on listening for the words that match your call objectives that you miss other customer needs or concerns? Actually, that’s a bit of a trick question, because if you missed them, you probably wouldn’t know. But in the thousands of role plays that we’ve filmed and debriefed, we’ve noted countless missed opportunities—that seem obvious once they are pointed out.
The key word is intent. You have a clear intent to achieve your call purpose, whether it is to close a sale or gain some agreement that advances your sales process. Within that call purpose, you have specific steps that you intend to accomplish, such as getting agreement that a specific problem exists and that it has certain costs or consequences. Intention creates filters which increase the chances of finding what you’re looking for but diminish your attention to anything else. It’ like trying to shine a flashlight in one section of a dark room because that’s where you think the treasure is. If it’s there, a focused beam will help you see it more clearly, but it may fail to illuminate unseen opportunities or hidden dangers.
The trick is to find the right balance between narrow and broad attention. According to Dr. Fernando Miranda, our minds are receiving up to 11 million bits of information at one time, but we can only attend to about 40 of those at one time. We make active choices about what we attend to at any specific moment, and by default, what we ignore. It’s like peripheral vision. For example, when you’re driving a car your most important focus is on your route and the lane in front of you: are you centered in the lane, at an appropriate distance from the car ahead? Yet you still have to be aware of the traffic around you, and you also have attentional capacity left over to look at the scenery.
It’s the same in a sales call. When you ask a question, you focus narrowly on the words being spoken by the buyer plus their body language and tone of voice, and that’s a good thing. But if the buyer’s answer contains other words that might indicate an additional need or a potential objection, you might miss it if you’re too narrowly focused on the answer. Suppose you ask, “Do you have an issue with ___?” If the customer answers, “Yeah, that’s definitely one of the concerns we’ve been struggling with,” Go ahead and explore the issue further, but make at least a mental note to come back and re-visit the phrase “one of”, because it indicates other unspoken issues.
Your preparation and planning will prime your mind to hear anything that relates to the problems, costs and needs you’re looking for, but remember that the customer may have other thoughts and ideas as well. Your plan should be a rough guide and not a rigid structure. Be willing to deviate from the plan to follow the conversation along promising directions; you can always return to it after a side trip. Use the fact that you have prepared topics and questions to relax your mind so that you can spend the time while the customer is speaking to focus on them rather than on the next question you plan to ask.
Another way to keep your broad attention engaged while still focusing narrowly is to tap into the power of the cocktail party effect. You can be deep into a conversation in a noisy crowded room and yet still hear if your name is mentioned by someone across the room, because your name is meaningful to you. You can increase the range of meaningful words by looking beyond problems. When you’re in solution mode your mind is primed to pick up on any hints of problems that the customer drops during the conversation. But needs are not always caused by known problems. There are three other conditions that you should be listening for: opportunities, changes and risks. Even if there might not be any overt problems, perhaps there is an opportunity to make an existing process faster or better in some way, or changes in the customer’s environment are driving the need for a response, or underlying risks exist which are not immediately pressing but could be costly.
In summary, don’t stop planning, and don’t stop listening intently, but make sure you keep your peripheral listening faculty turned on.
 Quoted in Can I have Your Attention? by Joseph Cardillo. I take this statement with a huge grain of salt, but definitely agree with the general premise.