Skillful Listening is Critical to Successful Ad Agency New Business

We’ve all heard the expression, “People love to hear themselves talk.” When it comes to new business, your success is often determined by how well you get your prospects to do the talking.

I’ve asked some great new business hunters what they think about that and the common answer has been, “When I’m on my game, I’m asking questions and listening really carefully to both what’s being said, and what’s not.”

I’ve also asked sales coaches to recommend a target percentage for the amount of time a prospect should talk. They’ve said,

You should be listening at least 60% of the time.

As that’s more than half the time the question is, how do you improve your listening skills? Here are the steps that I recommend:

Eliminate Distractions

  1. Turn off your cell phone.
  2. If you’ll be talking on the phone, turn off your computer monitor – unless you need it for your presentation, in which case close your email.
  3. Turn away from your desk or clear away anything that might take your mind off your current conversation.


  1. Put yourself in a “student mentality”. You want to be curious and open to new ideas. Remember, this is all about what you can learn from the person you’re talking to.
  2. Think only about your prospect: Give them 100% of your attention.

How to encourage your prospect to keep talking

  • Use short, positive prompts. For example, “umm-hmmm”, “Oh?”, “I understand”, “Then…?”, “And…?”
  • Use open-ended questions. Questions that start with What, Who, Which, or How can expand the conversation.
  • Use close-ended questions. Questions that start with Would, Did, Do, Can, Is, Would, or Are can be used to prompt for specifics.
  • Restate. Every so often repeat what you think your prospect said. Paraphrase in your own words. For example, “Let’s see if I clearly understand…”
  • Offer modest feedback. Share short insights and experiences, and then listen carefully to confirm.
  • Probe. Ask questions to draw your prospect out and get deeper information. For example, you might ask, “What do you think would happen if you…?”
  • Permit silence. Let comfortable pauses and periods of silence slow down the conversation. Give your prospect time to both think and talk.
  • Summarize. Interpret what you heard and check for understanding. For example,”So it sounds to me as if….”

What not to do – things that may shut your prospect down

  • Interrupt. This is the fastest way to have a short conversation.
  • Dig for too much information. Use your intution before asking a probing or potentially too-personal question. Timing is everything. Ask the question too early and you’ve lost your prospect.
  • Advise. Similarly, you are in no position to recommend a course of action until you’ve earned your prospect’s respect.
  • Patronize. Eliminate any phrases like, “I know just how you feel” from your vocabulary.
  • Give unwelcome reassurance. For example, the common phrase “Don’t worry about that” can be taken to mean the opposite, so don’t use it. 

Last night, I came across a quote in the book “Same Kind of Different As Me” that’s a perfect summary of our listening challenges, and also food for thought:

Those who should listen cannot get beyond the sound of their own voices.

Here’s the corollary for new business: “The person talking is the person buying”. Your key to success may be as simple as asking qood questions and then letting your prospect talk.



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