Sensing the Sale. Tune in your senses to better understand your clients and win more often.

Thinking back to my first sales job, my manager used the old adage: you have one mouth and two ears, remember to use them according to that ratio. Speak half as much as you listen; it's a common analogy that I’m sure others with sales backgrounds will be familiar with. Some of the advice I received early in my sales career was questionable (at best). This nugget is spot on.

I’d like to take this notion one step further and suggest that people who succeed most in winning new business are highly tuned into a range of senses. Let’s look at the five senses we all know best: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The last three are a bit tenuous to our purposes - apart from touch, nobody likes a clammy handshake - but effective use of sight and hearing can go a long way to ensuring positive results.

It sounds simple, but paying attention to what people say and do is incredibly powerful. Coupling these two with intuition (or gut instinct) and the amount of additional information at your disposal is huge. This intelligence feeds into what you say and how you go about saying it.


Reading the signs

It would be logical to assume that words are the main driver of communication, however, they play a surprisingly small part in making us understood. The most commonly quoted theory about the power of non-verbal communication is Albert Mehrabian's 7-38-55 rule. Mehrabian proposes that only 7% of our communication is made through words, while the tone of our voices makes up 38%. The rest is through body language.

Non-verbal communication and body language is a HUGE topic. I could write a whole series of articles on this alone but here’s a quick summary of the biggies. There are five main types of non-verbal communication: kinesics, haptics, vocalics, proxemics and chronemics. Kinesics are the most important in this instance and refer to movements of the hands, arms, body and face. Facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, sitting position and posture can all provide important cues as to someone’s level of interest but what does this mean in practice?


  • Facial expressions – You’re looking for smiles and a relaxed face. Furrowed or downturned expressions could mean your audience has lost interest and needs to be reengaged. Picking up on fake smiles is also important when reading a situation.

  • Eye contact – This is fairly simple. We show people we are listening with our eyes. Eye contact is good; avoiding eye contact is not good.

  • Gestures – If your client is fiddling with something or fidgeting in their chair, it could be an indication their mind is elsewhere and your cue to change tack. Relaxed, open hand movements are what you want.

  • Posture - Crossed arms tend to be a bad sign. You're looking for an open posture and nods of agreement. A head tilted upwards typically means someone is engaged, whereas head down can signal a negative attitude.


We can also take visual cues from our environment. An office space, how employees are dressed or artwork all provide you with information about the business, its culture and how they like to work. For example, the JP Morgan offices show art from every territory they operate in, demonstrating the global nature of their operation. BP on the other hand, displays photos of the company's history and how their brand has evolved through time. This portrays an important message of security and longevity.


Listening is more than hearing

Listening is the most important skill for winning new business. There’s an important difference between hearing and listening. It’s possible to hear without truly understanding what someone is saying. Hearing is a passive process that requires little effort. Listening, on the other hand, is an act that requires concentration.

Hearing without listening is a waste of time. It’s also incredibly frustrating for the person trying to be heard. Clients will quickly lose interest if briefs have to be repeated or simple points are misunderstood because you aren’t listening. If you’re listening properly, you will ask better questions which will improve your understanding of the brief.

What does this mean in the real world? Avoid distractions. Phone calls, emails, messages will all hamper your ability to truly listen so ditch the devices. Body language comes into play here too. Look at the person talking to you, show them you are engaged and interested. Facial expression, eye contact and gestures can all feed into this. Use open questions (who, what, why, where, when) to keep the conversation about them.

Keep an open mind. This is particularly important when you are in a consultative situation. Don’t jump to conclusions too soon or pre-judge. It's important to resist the urge to prescribe a solution without all the facts. The more you listen, the better you understand and the more valuable your advice.

Don't be afraid of breaks in the conversation. Everyone needs thinking time and silences allow for this. Give dialogue room to breath and be comfortable with quiet. Deeper insight and understanding will be your reward. Finally, summarise and paraphrase what you are hearing. Ask questions to clarify your understanding. Demonstrate you have been listening.


Go with your gut

Much has been written about the importance of gut feeling in business and it’s crucial when it comes to selling. Decision-making relies on a combination of data and intuition. Entrepreneurs look at data to reinforce their instinct about a particular decision, but the gut feeling tends to be the deciding factor.

In new business terms, when it comes to qualification, there are many tools to analyse the financial health of a prospective client. Conversely, a business has a similar number of ways to project an appearance of financial health. There’s a lot to be said for having a conversation with the potential client and getting a feel for them as an individual. Instinct allows you to pick up on signs of desperation, unrealistic expectations or unfathomable timescales, which you can then feed into the financial analysis for a more rounded decision about how to proceed.

It’s important to clarify that intuition (or gut feeling) is not the same is pre-judging. Pre-judgment is not based on facts, but biases that come from past experiences. For example, the fact that you were let down by a client in a particular sector doesn’t mean future clients from that industry will do the same. Well-rounded decision-making will always occur with the right balance of analysis and intuition. It's a fine line but an important one.


Two Ears, Two Eyes, One Gut

Referring back to the two ears one mouth analogy, let’s not forget that short of telepathy, you are going to have to speak at some point. However, the ratio need not be revised. If you’re speaking for 40% to 50% of the total conversation then you’ve likely got a decent balance. More than half might still feel comfortable, but you’re probably not asking enough open questions. If you have taken up more than 70% of the time, then you’re almost certainly rambling. This will significantly reduce your ability to truly understand your client’s needs.

Which, if you think about it, is all anybody really wants. To be understood.




Andersen, P. A., Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999)

Pease, A. and Barbara Pease, The Definitive Book of Body Language (New York, NY: Bantam, 2004)

Image: Christopher Burns - Unsplash