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Exercise Your Ears

These listening tips will ensure you get the most out of client interviews.

By Linda Richardson

How often have you heard, “advisors don’t listen?” What do people mean when they say this? When clients say advisors don’t listen, I don’t think they mean they’re zoning out during the sales call. Few would actually do that. In fact, most advisors do try to listen; yet they are perceived as being inattentive. So, let’s try exercising our listening skills.

Some mistakes
Many agents and advisors make mistakes that cause clients to feel they don’t listen. Here are just a few:

  • They don’t acknowledge what they hear before they go on to their point.
  • They immediately respond to what they hear with their point, rather than asking a question to drill deeper into what the client has said. Questioning—and not “Would you please repeat that?”—is a sign of listening.
  • They don’t take good notes, which they can use to tailor their solutions.
  • They don’t pick up and integrate client language when they respond.
  • They don’t make eye contact.
  • They interrupt.
The point is that clients feel advisors don’t listen because they don’t see signs that they have listened.

Acknowledging solutions
Acknowledging is a fantastic skill that not only shows you are listening, but helps you connect with a client. Acknowledging is not paraphrasing, which accomplishes very little. Unlike paraphrasing, where you rehash what has already been said, genuine acknowledgment shows comprehension. To avoid paraphrasing, follow up with an open-ended question. Here’s an example of what I mean:

  • Paraphrasing: “So you are saying you want to plan for retirement without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks in the stock market. Is that right?”
  • Acknowledgment followed by a question: “I understand that low-risk retirement planning is important to you. What risks do you see in the market right now?” and then “How would you define an unnecessary risk?”

Listening is hard work. You must stay focused to grasp what the client is saying. You must be an athletic listener—alert, engaged and willing to be on “receive,” not just “send.” As a reward, you will be able to tailor what you say to match the client’s needs, and you will be perceived as a really good listener.

Here are some more tips to improve your listening:

  • Stay focused.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Ask questions—listen for words to probe and clarify with questions
  • Acknowledge what you hear.
  • Take notes that you can use to prepare for future calls, write follow-up letters and develop winning proposals.
  • Integrate what you hear into what you say—i.e., speak the client’s language as you tailor your response.

Self-coaching activity
Practice is the best way to become a more effective listener. During your next client call, really focus on listening. It’s great to practice on the phone because you can take notes more extensively than during face-to-face encounters.

After the call, give yourself a score using the following criteria:

  • 10 points if you took notes throughout the call.
  • 15 points if you asked at least two questions to clarify and drill into something the client said.
  • 20 points if you acknowledged what you heard to connect and show you were listening before you gave your ideas.
  • 20 points if you incorporated the client’s words or ideas into your response.
  • 20 points if you changed what you might otherwise have said had you not asked the client a question.

The point is that clients feel advisors don’t listen because they don’t see signs that they have listened. Acknowledgment shows that you are listening. Asking questions shows you are listening. Taking notes appropriately shows you are listening. The big payoff and proof of listening is that you will come back with a solution that resonates with clients—and sells!

Linda Richardson is founder and CEO of Richardson, a global sales and consulting firm, and a faculty member at the Wharton School. She can be contacted through the company website


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