This is a guest post by Laura Caton from The Cornerstone Group Inc.

To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation. ~Chinese proverb.

On May 21, more than 200 people attended the Sales 2.0 Conference hosted by Selling Power Magazine in Boston; unfortunately I was not one of them. However, a good friend of mine did attend and she came back from this meeting, brimming with enthusiasm. As we sat enjoying a delicious glass of chardonnay Saturday night, she explained her renewed gusto for selling–she was reborn. We talked about social networking and how this was the new way to generate leads. We both bemoaned the lead time for closing a sale and how businesses appear to be paralyzed by spending, any spending!

One of the more interesting observations that apparently came out of this conference for her was from Gerhard Gschwandtner, Founder and CEO of Personal Selling Power Inc. In his opening speech, “7 Key Trends in Selling,” he talks about ditching the pitch. (btw, Bonnie offers a program called Ditch the Pitch). She said, “You know, it’s more about having a conversation. It’s more important than ever before to talk with prospects, as opposed to at them.” Wow, I didn’t know this was a news flash. I was even more surprised to hear my friend, who I also saw at the hunter/sales person personified, say this straight faced—as if this was news to her! Quite frankly, I was more interested in drinking my wine and talking recipes from this month’s Food and Wine.

Curious as to what else happened at this conference, I went on the Sales 2.0’s web site for more information. I stumbled upon this, Barry Trailer, a Partner at CSO Insights, was quoted as saying, “The number one mistake I see in the area of “customer engagement” is that the Sales Reps think they should be doing all the talking”. Okay, maybe doing the stop, listen and listen is a news flash!

As a wholesaler for a large mutual fund company in the early 80’s, the sales approach was the same; product, product, product. Every quarter was devoted to hawking a particular sector. Jam it down their throats whether it fit our audience’s business model or not. It was a matter of shelf space for prospectuses at the Merrill Lynch office and points earned for fantastic due diligence trips.  Just pitch the fund du jour and move to the next office. It was an unfulfilling sales position to say the least and I felt, dare I say, whorish at times.

Taking a more customer focused/consultative sales approach to selling is all about listening, and then asking strategic and investigative questions (so you do get to talk!). It applies to every sales appointment, phone conversation, and meeting you have with a potential buyer. Nancy Martini, CEO of PI Worldwide, states, “In a selling situation, the real world is divided into two “worlds” – yours and the prospects/clients. Often, sales professionals only focus on the “world” they are familiar with, their own.” The key is you can’t ask strategic questions if you don’t start by listening to the client or prospects’ needs.

Listening provides you with the information you want to work effectively in the prospect’s world. Good listening means you can link your value proposition to the client’s specific needs. It also means you can have a meaningful, shared conversation, as Mr. Gschwandtner suggests.

Most of us love to talk and listening is pretty hard. Many of us in sales love to share and socially connect with a person; which means talking.

So here’s a question, how well do you listen? Listening does not mean nodding your head in agreement and waiting to say what you want (this is my big listening challenge). It truly means putting your agenda aside. Make a point to practice good listening skills. Good listening is a commanding skill, which can set you apart from other out there. Ditch the pitch, sit back and never stop listening.

With extensive expertise in organizational & leadership development, the Cornerstone Group helps clients to build more productive organizations by better leveraging their most important asset, people.

Their unique approach to assessing people, finding their core strengths, and leveraging those strengths in current and future roles helps their clients to hire smarter, manage more effectively, and develop stronger leaders. Their unique process of assessment, training, consulting and ongoing support allows them to partner with their clients and create a road map for organizational success.