Can we teach salespeople to shut up and listen?
  • sales
  • Blog post

Can we teach salespeople to shut up and listen?

As sales trainers, we spend a lot of time teaching salespeople WHAT to do. But one of the most challenging skills in sales involves NOT doing something: talking about yourself and your product.

Every salesperson has been told to talk less and listen more. And yet research shows that salespeople continue to dominate sales conversations. In an average sales situation, they’re talking 81% of the time, according to one study.

The reason they can’t shut up, according to researchers from Harvard University, is because of brain chemistry. In a series of experiments, they offered people two choices: get paid to talk about other people, or get paid nothing and talk about yourself.

The researchers found that people would forgo up to 25% of potential earnings for the privilege of talking about their favorite subject: themselves.


Follow-up studies found that self-talk stimulates the same part of the brain that’s involved in rewards from food, sex and money, and associated with binging and addiction. Self-talk resembles these behaviors in two key respects: it tends to happen automatically, where we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and the more we engage in it the better it feels.

In short, salespeople are addicted to their own narrative. But it’s not their fault. It’s chemical.

So how do you break the addiction?

Here are three techniques you can teach. All of them are based on the idea of disrupting automatic, self-reinforcing behavior and getting reps to refocus:

  1. The 30- to 60-second rule. Have salespeople talk freely for 30 seconds. Then they have to start looking for a place to pull the monologue over to the curb before they reach 60 seconds.
  2. Use single-sentence responses to questions. Often, a customer’s question becomes a launching pad for an extended monologue – even when the customer just wanted a simple answer. Train reps to answer the question in a single sentence and then ask, “Did I answer the question?” If customers want to hear more, they’ll say so.
  3. Speak, stop and ask. This technique is similar to no. 2. The salesperson says something, and instead of pushing on to the next thing, stops and asks a question – for example, “How does that relate to your experience?” or even “Does that make sense?”

These techniques are simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. After all, you’re fighting addictive behavior. Give reps ample opportunity to practice. Role plays are ideal.

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