“Salespeople should listen more than they talk.”
“Follow the 80/20 rule: Sales reps should listen 80% of the time and only talk 20% of the time.”
“You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Shut up and listen.”
These axioms of professional selling are preached to salesforces around the world. We learn that in sales, we’re supposed to be great listeners who create an open dialogue with our buyers.
Yet, these laws of selling aren’t true in every scenario. For example, what if your sale is…
• A one-call close
• A complex, 15 call close
• Driven by inbound calls
• Dependent on cold calls
• Following up on inbound web form fills
• Reliant on scheduled meetings online, in person, or both
• In a specific vertical
• To a specific persona
Far too many sales ‘gurus’ fail to mention that their methods only work in specific sales environments or for one type of organization. Instead, they generalize the advice and leave people frustrated when that one approach doesn’t work for them.
If you want to truly optimize your conversations, there are four factors you need to consider about your unique sales process.
- What you sell
- Who you sell to
- Your selling motion
- The call type
For the rest of this article I’ll refer to conversation style, which is a combination of two factors:
- Talk:Listen ratio (measured in percentages)
- Interchanges per minute, which is the number of back and forths between the parties in the conversation.
Talk:listen and interchanges per minute can easily be plotted on an X-Y axis to visually show the conversation style of the rep. We refer to this graph as the Conversation Style Matrix.
Here’s how it works (the magic on the back end):
Our platform ingests the recording, which is then run through acoustic models and artificial intelligence to detect and omit dead air minutes such as IVRs, hold music, and silence. This provides clean data that is then fed into the Conversation Style Matrix.
Mythbusting (with Matrixes)
First off, let’s dispel this 80/20 nonsense. We’ve analyzed 2000+ Conversation Style Matrixes and none of them are as extreme as the 80/20 rule. The largest outlier we’ve measured is 35:65 talk to listen ratio over a month’s worth of calls.
Yet it’s hard to debate that listening isn’t important. Sadly we frequently observe a matrix where the rep does the inverse of the 80:20 rule–the rep does 80% of the talking. Even thinking about a salesperson talking 80% of the time on average across 10+ conversations makes my teeth hurt. We would all agree this is not a best practice.
Where Data Tells Us Your Reps Should Fall
Logic tells us that our sales reps should aspire to be in the upper right quadrant where they listen more than talk and generate more interchanges per minute in their conversations with buyers (just like companies want to be in the upper right corner of the Gartner Magic Quadrant).
Yet, our analysis shows that there are a surprising number of top performers who fall into the lower left quadrant and seem to break all the rules of selling. They talk more than they listen and have just a few interchanges per minute of conversation.
You have to look at more data. Compare conversion and win rates against the Conversation Style Matrix to understand what the optimal ranges look like for your organization based on the four factors.
Here’s how each of the four factors that are unique to your sales type influences your optimal ranges in the Conversation Style Matrix:
What You Sell
The products and services you offer heavily affect the optimal conversation style. Selling timeshares isn’t the same as selling supplies to companies that operate fleets. Selling software isn’t the same as selling consumer debt repair or small business loans.
If you sell something evangelical, your reps should fall more into the lower left quadrant for certain call types where they have to talk more to explain your offering.
If you sell something commoditized where buyers generally know what they’re buying, your reps should fall close to the center, but a bit higher on the y-axis. They won’t need to talk as much but should elicit healthy dialogue and interchanges as the buyer goes back and forth on their needs. Think about a conversation to order office furniture, for example. The buyer and seller have lots of quick back and forths with each party talking a similar amount to get the details of the buyer’s order correct.
Who You Sell To
Different personas and verticals require different conversation styles. Some personas want to talk your ear off because you’re the first person who really ‘gets’ their challenge. Others want you to cut to the chase and lay down the pitch. They want context first before they are willing to open up and share. Here are some baselines for conversation styles when having conversations with different personas.
Executives typically expect you to understand their business and challenges before you talk with them. You build credibility by showing them you are knowledgeable about their business. Additionally, they expect that you are going to tell them business lessons to be learned from their peers at other companies.
As such the ranges are 60%-75% talking with 1.5-2.5 interchanges per minute.
If you speak with a lot of end-users who experience the pain your product or service solves, you have to get them talking about their status quo. Reps should ask questions that get the end-users to conclude there is a large gap between their current state and the desired future state. Discovery is the name of the game. To do good discovery the rep needs to actively listen by paraphrasing what s/he heard, clarifying, and using a lot of ‘walk me through’ or ‘tell me more’ type phrases. In order to make the status quo unacceptable, you need more dialogue and more listening. Buyers who verbalize what they seek to fix, accomplish, or avoid are more likely to buy.
As such the ranges are 35%-50% talking with 3.5-5.5 interchanges per minute.
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Technical buyers need to understand the finer details. These calls require the rep to clarify or reverse the buyer’s question, followed by longer monologues and then checking with the buyer to see if that meets their needs.
As such the ranges are 55%-65% talking with 2.5-3.5 interchanges per minute.
Small Business Owners & Consumers
These calls are usually with a sole decision-maker who plays the role of all the other buyer roles has the other roles collapsed into them. They may consult 1-2 other people such as their spouse or business partner, but the sale is completed by speaking with the buyer alone typically in a transactional manner with one to three calls to close.
As such the ranges are 45-55% talking with 3-5 interchanges per minute.
Your Selling Motion
The buying process for a newspaper ad is vastly different than that for enterprise software. You have to consider your selling motion in relation to conversation style.
Relatively simple decision-making processes have conversations that typically look like a 60:40 split of the rep talking as they ask shorter questions to get the buyer talking before explaining their product or service.
Complex sales require a lot of listening during discovery calls and longer monologues during solution presentations. Since complex sales heavily vary from industry to industry, the reps’ conversation style will vary as well. They may move around more on the Conversation Style Matrix depending on the purpose of their scheduled calls during that time period.
If the calls are mostly discovery calls you’ll see far more listening and interchanges.
In the calls are mostly demonstrations of capabilities you’ll see more talking and fewer interchanges.
The Type of Call
Sales calls are not created equally. While there are a lot of different factors at play in addition to call type, there are a few hallmark traits to pay attention to.
Cold calls require the seller to establish context and say something of value to earn the right to ask questions. Reps should aim to speak 45%-55% of the time and average 3-5 interchanges per minute. Outbound calls to follow up on website content downloads or trade show attendees also follow this conversation style because the calls are still mostly cold.
Inbound unscheduled calls and requested contact (inbound leads) follow a different pattern. Your reps should be talking much less, around 35-45% of the time and average about 1.5-3.5 interchanges per minute. Prospects who fill out web forms to request a call with a sales rep typically are in an active buying cycle. They have an issue to address, something they need to accomplish, or a risk to mitigate. As such the job of the rep changes. In a cold call, context is needed. In these calls the buyer already has context. Now the rep needs to move right to discovery to get the prospect to open up and talk more. The rep has earned the right to ask questions by virtue of the work that marketing has done educating the buyer and either getting them to call a phone number or request a meeting. This is why there is much more listening and fewer interchanges as the buyer spends a longer amount of time talking about why they wanted to be contacted.
Scheduled discovery calls are all about asking questions, checking understanding, confirming, clarifying, and active listening. They require somewhere around a 60:40 to 75:25 talk to listen ratio. The 80+% listening recommended by other experts just doesn’t work these days, buyers aren’t willing to simply be interviewed anymore.
Scheduled demos are a call breed of their own. Reps should come prepared with a tailored presentation to their prospect, while also eliciting additional insights and feedback from the buyer. In our analysis, we found that a 65:35 ratio and an about of 2.5 interchanges per minute is where top performers land.
As you can see from the data, the 80:20 rule doesn’t appear anywhere. This ‘ideal’ call isn’t happening in the real world as experts claim and if it does, buyers feel alienated as if they’re playing 21 questions.
You might be thinking, “Steve, what the hell am I supposed to do with this information?”
The answer is very simple:
1. Start testing and measuring. What works for your business based on what you are selling, who you are selling to, your sales motion and your call types will not work for other businesses.
2. Use ranges. If you read research that said your reps should listen for 64.1% of their calls, is it wise to follow that guidance blindly? Should your reps be finding a way to listen just a tiny bit more to hit the metrics target of talk vs listen? No, of course not.
3. Allow personal style to play a role. We call it the Conversation Style Matrix for a reason. The points on the four boxes represent styles. So long as the rep is not veering out of the range that we know is optimal, things are OK. The chart tells us more about reps where the wheels are coming off the rails because they are product/feature dumping with big walls of sound. Or calls where the rep annoys the buyer with way too many questions without providing any value.
There you have it folks. No one can tell you exactly what optimal looks like in your organization. You have to figure it out and leverage benchmarks to help you get started.
Where do you think your reps should fall? Share your hypothesis in the comments and then go get some data.