10 min read
Aug 23, 2023

How to Talk With Prospects (Not at Them) - With Leslie Venetz

Learning to talk with prospects instead of at them to improve sales

Does 2023 have you feeling like your sales team is constantly fighting an uphill battle? 

You’re not alone. The average 2023 close rate for sales teams across all industries  is 3.26%, according to a recent report by Statista.

So what’s driving these low benchmarks and what can we do about it?

The two main factors: the economy and outdated sales practices.

Sales reps cannot control the economy, but they do have the power to lean into modern selling strategies. 

Luckily, we have experts in the sales community like Leslie Venetz to teach teams where to start. 

According to Leslie, it all starts with learning how to talk WITH prospects, not AT them.  

If there’s anything that Leslie, Founder of Sales Team Builder knows, it’s how to smash sales goals and coach others to sell successfully.

“Talking with prospects, instead of at them” is a motto you’ll readily find on Leslie’s LinkedIn profile. And it's more than just a byline or catchy bio phrase.

It’s an actionable process and philosophy your sales team needs to be driving home every time they interact with a prospect if they want to win their deals and repeatedly grow revenue in a time of economic downturn.

This simple yet profound motto stems from Leslie’s experience collected throughout her years of selling and active sales coaching. 

A LinkedIn Top Sales Voice of 2023, Leslie has headed up sales departments at three different organizations, spent 15 years in C-Suite enterprise selling, and independently closed enterprise deals at companies like Walmart, ExxonMobil, and J.P. Morgan.

Now the founder of Sales Team Builder, a corporate sales trainer and sales-led Go-To-Market consulting firm, Leslie specializes in empowering sales teams to engage with prospects in a meaningful way. Her mission is to help teams shift from talking at prospects to talking with them, by creating genuine connections that drive results.

“We all know what it feels like to be talked at. We know that feeling where you don’t feel like you’re being listened to,” says Leslie on a recent episode of Ashley & Katrine’s Infinite Revenue Playlist.

Unsurprisingly, according to a recent HubSpot report, 69% of buyers answered that the one aspect they care about most when talking to a seller is “listen to my needs” – and that’s the exact priority that Leslie’s philosophy addresses.

So how do we ensure we’re talking WITH prospects? 

Sales teams must master these six stages, outlined by Leslie and her teachings at Sales Team Builder:

  1. Lean into curiosity
  2. Active listening
  3. Relevance over personalization
  4. Meet people where they’re at
  5. Negotiate for a ‘win-win’
  6. Practice makes perfect 

Lean into curiosity 

First we start with the basics. Get curious.

Accordingly to Leslie, curiosity is the foundation for a good seller.

It’s the driving force behind identifying problems and understanding how to solve them. A seller’s job is to dig deep into a buyer's role, company, processes, and pain points to identify not only their problems, but how to solve those problems. 

While “being curious” about your buyer might seem like a no-brainer, Leslie first starts with this simple concept because curiosity has not always been seen as a strength by sales leaders. Terms like “aggressive” and a “hunter” attitude were often (and still sometimes are) thought of when a leader thinks of a top performing salesperson.  

“Skillsets like curiosity, empathy, listening - those in the very recent past were things that could lose you a job because you wouldn't be seen as a hunter, a ninja Warrior Wizard, that was gonna go out and kill deals,” Leslie explains.

But gone are the days buyers respond (somewhat) positively to 12 cold calls followed by 15 cold emails. Sellers need to show they have a genuine desire and interest in the buyer’s circumstances, and they can’t do that without truly being curious.

If you want to be a top performer, Leslie says you “have to get curious, and the only way to get curious is to ask a ton of questions and then actively listen.”

Active listening

One of the more difficult stages to master when learning to talk with prospects and not at them, is learning to actively listen.

“Let's acknowledge that active listening is necessary for sellers but it's a skill, it's a craft. It is difficult. It is something that absolutely needs practice” says Leslie. 

So what is active listening?

The definition according to the Center for Creative Leadership is the practice of listening attentively to a speaker, understanding what they’re saying, responding and reflecting on what’s being said, and retaining the information for later use. 

The most important piece of this framework - learning to ‘resist’.

Leslie shares that “Resist is not just resisting the temptation to interrupt, but it's resisting the temptation to rent space in our head to the thing that we are gonna say next.” 

This practice can be especially difficult for sellers because they’re so excited to show the buyer everything they know about their product and their problems. While it can be tempting to talk for all 30 minutes of a discovery call to cram in as many details about their solution as possible, it’s a recipe for a close-lost opportunity. 

“Resisting the temptation to assume that you know what the prospect is trying to share with you is especially hard in sales… it's not even that you wanna sell, you're excited because you think you have something to help them, but you're jumping in too soon,” says Leslie. 

The moment a seller stops actively listening and starts to make assumptions, well, you know what they say, assuming makes an “a** out of U and Me”. 

Reps talking at prospects and making assumptions leads to “offering the wrong solutions because they haven't listened or are just so eager that they don't stop” says Leslie. 

To practice active listening, Leslie suggests mimicking a child asking questions of their parents. 

“You can't just go off and talk about yourself when your kid is asking you a question that may not even make any sense. You've gotta actually answer all of their questions ‘what do you mean? Are you what? Who? Why? Why? Why?’ ”. 

For those without kids to use as practice, two other tactics are to count to three before responding when a prospect finishes speaking and ensuring to reference at least one thing the prospect mentioned in response.

The moment sellers start to do this, they instantly build rapport with prospects and demonstrate they are truly there to solve their needs. 

Relevance over personalization

The debate over personalization versus relevance is nothing new.

Leslie’s stance is that sellers need to stop wasting their time with faux personalization because it’s not working. 

In a recent LinkedIn post, she writes that “Personalization, or rather disingenuous personalization, is one of the biggest mistakes sales pros are making right now.”

In fact, the personalization reps are wasting so much of their time on may even be prompting prospects to hit BLOCK. 

Leslie calls out disingenuous personalization as writing things like:

👉 I see you are the Founder of XYZ company

👉 Congrats on your Series A

👉 I see you went to XYZ college, go sports! 

👉 You live in Chicago, no way, so do I! 

Superficial “personalized” sentences like these have no relevance to the rest of a seller’s often seller-centric message. Ultimately they leave prospects confused, annoyed, and with a clear impression that the seller does not truly know or care about them.

If your sales team wants to master building genuine connections with buyers that leads to a sale, ensure everything you say, write and do when you engage with them is relevant. 

Leslie reminds us that ultimately, “One of the big pieces of talking with prospects, instead of at them, is personalizing in a way that is meaningful. Really focus on is it relevant? Is it valuable from the eyes of the prospect?” 

Meet people where they’re at

The simplest way for any salesperson to ensure their interactions are relevant to a prospect is by meeting them where they’re at. 

“When you meet people where they are at, they're more likely to read and consume your messages because you're making it easier for them,” explains Leslie.

Meeting a prospect where they’re at looks like:

  • communicating on specifically requested channels 
  • writing copy in a way that's digestible by using shorter, simpler sentences
  • recording videos if the prospect digests information better that way
  • incorporating their professional and personal language 
  • engaging with buyers in online communities long before they enter the buying process

When sellers put this into practice they quickly build trust with their prospects. 

Leslie shares that prospects start to think sellers “are making it about the buyer by meeting them on the exact channel that they have asked them to communicate on.”

What better way to show a buyer you care than listening to where they are at and choosing to meet them there, rather than pushing them to come to you?

Negotiate for a ‘win-win’

Not everyone is a successful hostage negotiator like Chris Voss, but according to Leslie everyone can at the very least learn tips from one.

Part of talking with prospects is also treating them like a true partner. And in partnerships, the outcome should be that everyone involved wins.

So how do we negotiate in a way where everyone leaves feeling like a winner? 

Learn from a master negotiator.

Leslie’s personal list for upping your negotiation skills:

  1. Read Never Split the Difference 
  2. Watch the masterclass Art of Negotiation by Chris Voss
  3. Follow Josh Braun on Linkedin

Leslie shares that “negotiation should be a win-win…the outcome should be a true partnership. And a partnership requires that win-win outcome.” 

Sellers typically head into pricing calls thinking they need to get as much money out of the buyer as possible (the bigger the deal, the bigger the commission check, right?!). 

But when sellers lead with that mindset, they deploy unnecessary and sometimes harmful tactics that quickly lose the trust of the buyer and potentially the entire deal. 

“The biggest failing-point when it comes to negotiation is that sellers think they're negotiating, but actually what they're doing is using price drops to create false urgency to get somebody to operate on their timeline versus identifying the timeline that the prospect has based on their needs and deliverables” says Leslie. 

Instead of made-up deadlines and fake pricing opportunities, sellers should work with their prospects hand-in-hand, negotiating on real factors shared by the buyer.

Leslie reminds us that in a negotiation, “the surest way to build sales pressure to make them want to act swiftly is to help them understand why acting now is better than acting later.”

Practice makes perfect

Sales is a difficult role to master. 

Being good at selling requires hours upon hours of practice and skill sharpening.  

In order to master talking with prospects instead of at them, Leslie encourages sales reps to practice, practice, practice. 

“Keep practicing, keep learning, keep improving. It’s a muscle that you have to flex and work,” says Leslie. 

There are many ways to improve upon being curious, active listening, relevance over faux personalization, meeting people where they’re at, and negotiation. According to Leslie, it all starts with incorporating them in your daily routine. 

“Make routines your friend,” Leslie wrote recently on LinkedIn.“The right daily habits can turn an average day into a win.”

For those lucky enough to have access to budgets or company tools, investing in various sales technology and platforms can also help lead to quick improvement. 

Leslie reminds us that “we have so many amazon tools at our disposal”. Call recording tools like Gong, Apollo.io, and Grain.com or AI email coaching tools like Lavender.ai, Luna, and Seamless.ai are all great places to start. 

Whether a sales rep has access to coaching tools or not, the most important thing is to have the desire to improve and the ambition to put in the work.

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. 

Tune in to Leslie's Episode on Ashley & Katrine’s Infinite Revenue Playlist

Leslie’s mission is clear.

Her goal is to help teams shift from talking at prospects to talking with them by creating genuine connections that drive results.

As highlighted throughout her episode on Ashley & Katrine’s Infinite Revenue Playlist, there are six elements required to master her philosophy; being curious, active listening, relevance over personalization, meeting buyers where they’re at, negotiating for a win-win, and practicing sales skills. 

Leslie's expertise shines through as she unpacks these complex topics, making them accessible and actionable for listeners.

Listen to the full episode to hear more.

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