[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"She's losing them," I thought to myself. I was sitting beside one of my colleagues at a large boardroom table that overlooked the Pacific ocean. We were meeting with key decision makers at a company that had the capacity to give us a large sum of money. I was somewhat new to the world of fundraising, and I was mostly there to ascertain if the company's grantmaking aligned with our organization's mission. My colleague came prepared with a folder of handouts, talking points, business cards. I came with a tiny notepad and a years worth of organization data in my brain.
The meeting was set for an hour, and my colleague began by talking and talking and...talking. The executives across the table from us listened politely but I could tell that their interest was waning. I was nervous to step into the conversation; these weren't my contacts after all. But after enduring her monologue for over 20 minutes, I butted in, "What do you hope to do with your philanthropic dollars?" I asked. It was a simple question, one we should have started with, but we hadn't gotten around to it yet. The CEO, who was new and excited to make an impact, launched into his vision for the company. We listened, and through listening, were able to understand how our priorities aligned. They ended up cutting us a big check, and I learned something crucial about fundraising (and sales), which is to never, ever dominate the conversation.
Henry Ford said, "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as from your own."
I don't work in fundraising anymore. I transitioned to a sales job late last year for the dual purpose of not being bored and making more money. But I'm learning that sales is a lot like fundraising. The best way to make a sale (or raise dollars) is to first be likeable and second, solve a problem. Shutting up is a good way to do both of these things at once. People like people who listen, and through listening, you'll better understand your customer's problems. It's not rocket science, it just takes a modicum of social awareness, but so many smart people are bad at it. I've seen it first hand. I've sat through terrible meetings. I've been on the receiving end of sales calls that both horrified me and piqued my interest. Since I'm not yet good at selling things, I've left you with some tips to become a better listener:
Everything a customer says can help you understand their needs and close a deal, unless they say, “Please don't ever contact me again.” I actually like when customers ask to be left alone, because it saves both of us a lot of time and unnecessary annoyance.
The more you listen to the customer, the more likely the customer is to listen to you. People like people who actually listen and likeable people (probably) make more sales.
Ask questions throughout the conversation, but only when a customer is done talking. Make sure you understand exactly what they're telling you.
Here are some obvious ones: don't interrupt (ever), don't look at your phone, don't be defensive of your company/product/service, don't overpromise, and definitely don't be dishonest.
Flaunt your expertise, not in a gross or annoying way, but by being obviously proficient in whatever it is your selling.
Leverage social proof. If other customers will vouch for your product, it will sell itself.
Tell a compelling story. When I worked in fundraising, I leveraged my own experiences as well as stories from clients and volunteers to ingratiate myself and the organization in a touching, impactful way. In sales, it's helpful to tell a story that is hyper client-focused and that demonstrates how necessary or helpful your product or service will be.