In today’s competitive business environment and challenging economy, organizations are facing tremendous pressures from customers’ demands which are continuously on the rise expecting higher business standards and services year on year. Therefore, to maintain leadership in the market, organizations need to focus on the development of the organization which encompasses the development of its employees to improve their overall skills including, knowledge and productivity (Arthur et al, 2003). Also, organizations need to maintain their high performers and encourage new talented employees to join a vibrant organization with potential professional development and carrier growth opportunities. Baily (1998) explains that organizations are offering nowadays training, learning and development opportunities to attract new talented candidates to join organizations and to maintain their existing high performers.
Training plays an important role in helping organizations to achieve their objectives by improving employees’ performance and offering opportunities for employees’ personal growth (Nadler, Nadler, and Bell, 1989). Therefore, organizations need to invest and develop their employees’ especially salespeople to improve their skills and equip them with the tools to be high performers in a dynamic and very competitive business environment.
Importance of listening
Interestingly, researchers emphasize the importance of listening similarly to reading, writing, and speaking (Cooper, 1988) (cited in Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997). Companies such as Xerox, Pfizer, General Electric, Ford, IBM, and Pillsbury started to recognize employees listening skills and their importance to the organization by incorporating listening training in their training programs and conducting listening skills training to their employees (Papa and Glenn, 1988) (cited in Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997). Even though effective listening is desired across all professions in an organization, listening plays an important role for sales people’s success in business-to-business relationships. It is important to note that listening skills have been classified as the most important skill to have by salespeople working in the industrial market which is a must to ensure salespeople’s success (Moore et al., 1986) (cited in Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997). Moreover, Ingram et al. (1992) explain that a salesperson’s failure is attributed to ‘poor listening skills’ in their research.
Castleberry and Shepherd (1993) define listening in the sale context as a process consisting of ‘actively sensing, interpreting, evaluating and responding to the verbal and nonverbal messages of present or potential customers’. Effective interpersonal listening allows a salesperson to understand customers’ needs and to adapt his/her selling behaviors to address a prospective customer’s needs improving his/her sales performance (Spiro and Weitz, 1990; Weitz et al., 1986) (cited in Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997).
Challenges in the business-to-business environment
The challenges for organizations in the business-to-business environment are on the rise causing tremendous pressure on manufacturers and suppliers’ salespeople. Organizations are looking to partner with fewer business partners, manufacturers, and suppliers, who can provide added value in their partnerships (Shepherd, Castleberry, and Ridnour, 1997). Furthermore, the cost of conducting business-to-business is not to be neglected. The cost of a single ‘face-to-face’ sales call in a business-to-business interaction is estimated to be more than US$ 350 and which is continuously increasing-climbing (Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997). Businesses are aiming at increasing their profits, lowering their operational cost and partnering with suppliers and manufacturers who can provide added value in their business transactions. Therefore, organizations need to invest in the development of their salesforce to be able to cope with the tremendous pressures driven by the competitive and demanding market concerning added value requirements by customers/buyers; in addition to the reduction of the number of suppliers by selective buyers and the high cost associated in a business-to-business transaction.
Developing a key account strategy in business-to-business interactions maximizes the return on investment by suppliers/manufacturers in approaching potential large customers by overcoming the high cost involved in a single face-to-face business interaction (Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997). However, a key accounts strategy is based on a business-to-business partnership between the key account (buyer) and the seller (supplier, manufacturer). A strategic partnership requires building a relationship based on trust between the key account (buyer) and the seller. Additionally, building, developing and maintaining strategic key account business relationships require creativity, innovation, and competency from the seller which relies on the communication skills and competency of the seller’s salesforce especially listening skills (Shepherd, Castleberry and Ridnour, 1997).
The ability of a salesperson to build a business relationship with customers and key accounts is based on his/her capability to be a good listener adding value to the business relationship. Shepherd, Castleberry, and Ridnour (1997) explain that added ‘value in the business to business transaction is the success of the salesperson in gathering information (probing, listening, interpreting data), recommending courses of action while maintaining trust, respect, and perceived competence’. Therefore, salespeople need to have excellent listening skills to add value to business relationships and be able to provide advice and recommendations to their customers in their consultative solution-based sales approach.
Even though listening has been considered as an important skill, there is very little research conducted on listening skills in the sales context (Castleberry and Shepherd, 1993). So, are your salespeople listening?