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Listening is key to the entire sales process. Here’s how social media and search engines can help you listen and connect with the people who have the most impact on your business.

There’s a single distinction between great and not-so-great salespeople that just about everyone can agree on: It’s the ability to listen. The same thing can be said of managers, customer service personnel and small-business owners. Those who are most successful aren’t just doers; they’re great listeners.

When we converse with people face to face, we not only listen to what they’re saying, we also learn to catch subtle social cues. Those who are observant enough can see when a person’s body language suggests they’re losing interest or that the expression on their face indicates confusion. And while it’s harder to listen in the digital environment, with more and more business being conducted on social channels, it’s absolutely crucial that we learn how to do it.

Looking People in the Eye Digitally

It’s a simple concept: People want the same things on social media channels that they want when they walk into a store. If they ask a question that applies to their unique circumstances, they don’t want a boilerplate response. If they post a complaint, they want someone to respond to it. While we recognize and act on this all the time in face-to-face settings, the standard for digital interaction has been lowered dramatically in comparison. Why?

A big part of that disconnect is the lazy marketing that’s been going on for a while. Over the past few decades, we’ve become used to broadcast messaging, display advertising and a “campaign” mentality. We’ve been trying to apply those concepts to digital media when, in fact, we should be going back to the basics of person-to-person interaction to focus more on customer relationships.

Another reason is that social cues are easier to miss without the benefit of body language and personal interaction, so it seems easier to manage your digital presence at arm’s length than to truly dig in and get involved. However, easier isn’t always better. Social isn’t magic: It takes time and effort, much as it does with personal interactions.

The key is to learn digital listening skills and use them to relate better with individuals. I call it “looking people in the eye digitally,” and it comes down to re-learning some of those face-to-face skills and applying them to digital channels.

Don’t Let It Overwhelm You

Learning to listen digitally can be intimidating, especially if you’re inexperienced in social technology. There’s a lot of noise, and it’s coming from many different directions. But don’t let that discourage you. While listening to the broader community is an important part of looking people in the eye digitally, your primary concern is listening to one person at a time.

There are two simple social skills that apply in equal measure to social channels: respect and honesty. No matter where you meet people or where your conversation takes place, if you treat people with respect and honesty, you can’t go wrong.

Don’t worry so much about the technical trappings. While it’s important to learn about the different features that social platforms offer, you don’t need specialized knowledge to get started. Just be human—you’ll be safe as long as you keep your eye on connecting and conversing in a respectful, authentic way.

Take Advantage of the Social Time Lag

One of the advantages of social over face-to-face interaction is that it can take some of the inherent nervousness out of the listening process. Digital conversations allow for the type of measured, detailed responses that are rarely possible in a face-to-face setting.

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You have an important conversation with someone and leave feeling as if you didn’t make your point clearly enough. Later, when you’re driving back to your office, you think of the joke, anecdote or example that would have framed your point perfectly.

With social, you can listen without having to worry about committing rapid-fire facts to memory. The information you need to listen effectively is already compiled—the person’s name, profile and a documented account of their question or comment is just a click away. Take advantage of those things! Consider reading the information that your connections share in their profile. Look at the pictures they post and the links they share. You can take the time to learn about your connection, and demonstrate that knowledge when you talk to them.

As a young salesman, I was taught to find out as much as possible about my contact prior to meeting with them. A great way to do that was to look around their office (if you were lucky enough to have a minute or two before they arrived). You could see diplomas on the wall, pictures, trophies—anything to get a sense of who this person was. Did they like to golf? Fish? Did they have kids? Where did they go to college? It was a great way to find commonalities and bring personal context into the conversation: “Oh, I see you went to school near Park City, Utah. I love to ski! When was the last time you were there?”

The great thing about social is that you can do this even while you’re chatting with the customer in real time. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you can visit their profile and brush up on important details. If you’re unfamiliar with something related to the topic at hand, you can conduct a quick search and find the relevant facts while you’re chatting. Compare that to a face-to-face meeting where you have to remember the name of the person to whom you’ve just been introduced, listen to what they’re saying, make mental notes of important details and think about how you’ll respond, all at the same time.

On the flip side of the coin, you should make sure your social profiles share enough about you that others will also be able to connect quickly and easily. For instance, use your real name (and a smiling photo) in your personal profile. Provide a description that offers people ways to relate to you personally, and include a link to your website. Don’t force people to dig around to find out who you really are. The important thing is to be real—not perfect.

Lurking Can Be a Good Thing

The great thing about the digital environment is that you don’t need to be involved in a conversation to start listening. In fact, listening passively (or lurking, in digital lingo) can be a great way to get your feet wet and learn about a given medium simply by watching how others use it.

Lurking in digital channels isn’t usually considered creepy or nefarious. In fact, most sites have tools to help you find the type of conversations you’d like to listen to. For instance, Facebook has added a trending function, while blog-oriented channels like Tumblr and WordPress allow you to browse by tags and key terms. LinkedIn indicates groups you might be interested in joining based on what you put in your profile. Twitter’s search function is perhaps the most efficient because it allows you to search hashtags to find conversations around a common phrase.

Searching hashtags can be a great way to start listening. Just Google “#[topic of interest],” and browse the results. Typically you’ll find more than a few sites and blog posts with lists of hashtags relevant to your topic of choice. This method is especially useful when you’re searching for hashtags on conversations with long shelf lives, like those that involve professional networking and skilled services.

You can use hashtag terms to search on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or search engines, and you can also use them to connect. For instance, on Twitter, you can find TweetChats within your industry or on any topic of interest. Want to find conversations around customer service? Check out #CustSvc on Twitter, and see what conversations come up.

The connection advantages to searching with hashtags is a big plus. If you’re listening to a specific conversation and like what someone has to say, follow them and send a personal “hello” message. If you like their tweets, read some of what they share in other places. If you like something they share, check out the profile of the person who made the original post. This is all part of the digital listening process. Repeat a few times, and you’ll quickly start building connections with similar interests.

Should Listening Be Automated?

If listening seems like a lot of work, you might be thinking “But isn’t there an app for that?” Yes, there are automated listening tools out there. Some good ones include Hootsuite, which you can use for viewing multiple hashtag searches. Use Google Alertsand Mention to get media alerts about where you or your company has been mentioned.

It’s important not to depend too much on tools, however. We’re talking about connecting with individuals, after all, so it helps to go directly to someone’s individual profile on Twitter and Facebook to get a sense of what they’re having conversations about.

You’ve no doubt heard the expression “I wish I was a fly on the wall.” Well, today, consumers are offering to let us be a fly on their wall, and we’re not taking them up on their offer. You should go to the pages of your fans or followers and see what they’re saying—that’s what I call “getting your hands dirty.” It’s not about collecting data points, but getting a feel for how people perceive you. It’s marketing intelligence that’s right at your fingertips.

Businesses can scale this kind of listening by empowering their employees to do it. Many times, when I’m in front of an audience, I’ll ask, “How many people here go to the profiles of their friends, fans and followers every day and see what they’re talking about? Or have employees who do it for you?” I’m always surprised at how few hands go up.

Whatever automated listening tools you have, nothing replaces personal, “look-them-in-the-eye” individual listening. If all your employees were able to make room for that on a daily basis with your customer profiles, think of what that collective intelligence could do for your company.

The bottom line is, many of us have let personal interaction with our prospects and customers take a back seat to technology, when it should be the other way around—actively listening is a human skill that can’t be replicated by a machine or an app. Digital channels give us more ways to connect with more people and drive more conversations than ever before.

In the end, people want to be treated like people. We just have to remember how important true listening is in the process and use those old-fashioned skills to give value and build the kind of relationships than turn those people into customers.

Read more articles on customer engagement.

Photo: Getty Images

Originally posted JANUARY 15, 2015 American Express OPEN Forum blog

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