Revisiting and revising this blog, which was the very first one I tried on LinkedIn. I’ve added an update and improved that image…

It’s not an original statement, is it? Many people say this when they want to talk, and they want others to be quiet. I once heard about a leader I really admired using this statement, and was surprised that she would use such a cliche. Over the following months, I learned that this leader – we’ll call her Leena* – was such an original because she would truly practice this ratio herself.

As a business leader, Leena would personally work so hard before any meeting…starting with the salesperson, but then also studying the customer’s website, key attendee LinkedIn profiles, scouring the internet and old meeting notes for their strategic imperatives. She taught me to be comfortable walking into a meeting with extensive preparation but almost no PowerPoint, so that we could truly listen to the customer and adapt our conversation to their needs. Working for her was one of the most educational and transformational times of my life, because she didn’t just tell people to listen. She really listened and adapted her selling/coaching/teaching to her audience.

Since that time in my career, I have seen many sales and product managers walk into customer meetings with the INTENT of listening, but not the skills. True listening is hard, even though many people associate sitting quietly and listening with passivity or inertia. Don’t let the illusion of the charismatic, slick-talking salesperson confuse you. The best sales people – I’ve worked with several of them – they’re hawks. They watch body language, hear word choice, probe little tells for more insights. Only when they time is right do they position their solution.

If you follow sales and marketing blogs, you already know selling starts with this kind of active listening. It’s completely common sense! Yet, common sense is NOT always common practice. The humility, patience and work required to listen for (and then to) unexpected or adverse feedback is challenging. On top of that, truly listening means digging past what your customer says is wanted and getting to the real, unmet need. That means you can’t walk into a meeting with a canned presentation and rattle off facts about your current or future product. You cannot ask yes/no questions, unless you are late in the development cycle and you really need yes or no answers. You absolutely have to listen to understand and be willing to ask questions that challenge your assumptions, especially those that will determine the market success of your product.

Innovation is successful when it results in a sale. Selling requires solving a problem, but if you don’t know what the customer’s problem is, how will you solve it?

Update: earlier this week, I was talking to an entrepreneur who felt that a previous endeavor had gone wrong for two reasons. One of those? Too many big shots who had “done it” at big firms… they had the big titles and the big jobs. My question: Did they have the humility to listen? and to hear that they might be wrong? In true lifelong learning, we should always be listening and seeking nonconforming information.

Do you have a product that isn’t living up to its potential? A completely disruptive innovation that no one seems to understand? Could listening differently help you? Do the skills to do so exist in your organization? If not, maybe bringing in someone with experience, perspective and insight will help you execute and learn at the same time. I’m listening here.

*Leena is a pseudonym. Her extensive network of admirers will recognize her instantly.