This is my favorite picture of Ross Perot. You may think of him as an eccentric billionaire from Texas. You may remember him as the presidential candidate in 1992 who got 19% of the vote (the most for an independent candidate since 1912). When I think about Ross Perot, I think pure inspiration when it comes to sales or developing a business. He is my icon in that regard. When it comes time for New Year’s business related resolutions, I start and begin with Ross Perot. Why? Young Ross was an IBM salesman after he left the Navy. How did he get that job? He was an official greeter in the Navy and met an IBM representative who was impressed with him and told him to look him up after he was discharged, which he was in 1957. He began selling computers for IBM and in 1961, IBM introduced sales quotas. What was Perot’s reaction? In 1962, Perot made his annual quota by January 18th. That is what greatness looks like. I live in Dallas and I met Perot at a fundraiser. Ross Perot’s secret sauce, his special skill is the only New Year’s resolution you need for 2015 to succeed beyond your wildest dreams: You need to learn to listen and consistently improve your listening skills.
Everyone thinks they listen, but they don’t. Watch someone listen to you. Observe how quickly they respond. Were they listening to you? Maybe a little. Once they formed an opinion of what you were saying they did what? They began formulating a response. They were responding, not listening. And you can see it in their facial expression. You will note a reaction in their face or bodily gesture at some point while you are talking and they are done listening and they are formulating. Worse yet, interruptions happen all the time in meetings, sales calls, random conversations. But even if you aren’t interrupted, the desire to respond eradicates the quality of the listening. What does good listening look like?
I study from time to time under Chester Santos, the 2008 Memory Champion. Working with Chester, one thing I learned was memory and listening are completely interrelated. In trying to improve my memory, I had to become a better listener. I myself was a quick responder and reactor – not a listener. I was on a sales negotiation a couple months ago. There were five representatives from the client. I listened so hard I thought I was going to sweat. I withheld my judgment and opinion and just listened. When they finished, and the exchange included a lot of information, I repeated the key elements they wanted at the end even though they represented different business units with different needs. I hadn’t taken a single note. They were astonished and one of them said, “Did you write that on your hand?” Listening is the secret to sales and leadership success and we got that sale. As Perot says, “most people don’t listen to customers.” His superiors didn’t listen to him when he told them what customers wanted. They wanted ancillary services with their computers. What did he do? Built two multi-billion dollar business providing ancillary services.
If you don’t believe me, believe Ross Perot. The only New Year’s resolution you need to succeed in 2015 and beyond is to dramatically change how well you listen to others. What are some simple exercises you can do to improve your listening skills for 2015?
1. Open your mind and suspend judgment. The reason you respond and react instead of listen is because you have an opinion. You agree or you disagree or you think it needs clarifying. Let it be. If you can suspend judgment, you will hear things you haven’t heard. Be aware of your “self talk” and shut it down.
2. Active listening. This doesn’t mean repeating word for word what someone says to you. It means that after you have listened and after they are done, done, you give them back the essence in your own words to see if you are connecting.
3. Never, ever interrupt someone. This is the cardinal sin of listening. And it can be so tempting. It tends to happen when you are tired of listening to someone or you greatly disagree. I have seen this on sales calls – it is the kiss of death for a sales team. It shows a complete lack of respect.
4. To listen properly, get into a meditative state. If you don’t have a meditative state, you need to get yourself one. As a martial artist, I have one. It is for me a mindset of complete focus. In martial arts you need focus or you will get hit. Maybe you can get it from yoga or study it up. But great listening is a martial art!
5. Check your ego at the door. Stop worrying about how smart you are or appear. A lot of bad listening habits come from a desire to show others how smart or right you are. That’s good for you, but will be bad for your sales. It ain’t about you.
6. Maintain an encouraging and inviting presence. Don’t cross your arms. Don’t glance around the room. Your facial expression and gestures should reflect openness.
7. Put down your d*$# PDA! I know you imagine that five minutes can’t go by without you missing an important email or text. Great listeners never look at their PDA while they are engaged in a conversation. But I have seen it done.
8. Pay attention to the facial and bodily gestures of the speaker. Take them all in. Why? Studies show the vast majority of communication is non-verbal. So listening is tactile. You need to feel it.
9. Practice, practice, practice. Listening is a skill. It is teachable and it is learnable, but there is no substitute for practice. This will be the key to continual improvement.
When I am working hard at listening it feels like work! So if it feels like work to improve your listening skills, you are on the right path. Regardless of what you think of Perot’s idiosyncrasies or policies or other opinions; the man was a great listener as a sales person. Even as a candidate he advocated open democracy with “electronic town hall meetings.” He has some great quotes, but his simple, “Spend a lot of time talking to customers face to face. You’d be amazed how many companies don’t listen to their customers.” That is still my favorite. It isn’t too early to set your New Year’s resolutions. I recommend this one, just one, for 2015. And check yourself on January 18, 2015. Are you done with your annual goals? Don’t put on your thinking cap, open your ears and start listening. Please share your listening tips.