I recently went to book flights to Australia and New Zealand with a major agent specialising in the Far East. Had the consultant been really listening to what I needed, picking up on the cues, and asking reasonable questions then they may have got the £6,000 booking.


Assumptions were made about airlines that I was prepared to accept, whether stopovers were required (they were not), suggested flight timings, exploring ancillaries and so on. The itinerary offered just wasn’t what I wanted. Often on these long-haul bookings the client develops their thinking about requirements during the booking process. Listening and asking questions is absolutely key to building up the correct type of rapport with a client.

I ended up frustrated and lost the will to book with that person. I would hate to think that you, a competent homeworker or agent, could miss out in a similar situation so it is worthwhile re-examining your communication skills.

People usually assume that they have been listening all the time although, on reflection, they probably have not. There are four key factors in effective listening:

1.  Encouraging the client

2.  Be attentive to the whole message, including non-verbals and body language

3.  Reasonable - hearing the client out before evaluating

4.  Summarise - feeding back to the client what you have understood

 The client’s response to your summary will give you a measure of the effectiveness of your listening.

Listening for understanding

Listening is the communication skill we are called on to use most (we have two ears and one mouth), yet for which we are taught least. It is probably because of the lack of teaching that we take listening for granted. But let's stop and think about what usually happens in one-to-one communication:


Speaker - You

Receiver – The Client

1.Starts speaking

Listens, we hope

2.Continues speaking

Starts thinking about what’s been said

3.Continues speaking

Thinks about what they are going to say

4. Stops speaking, starts listening, again       we hope

Starts speaking


Note that the speaker (agent) was speaking through stages 1, 2 and 3 but the receiver (client) was listening for only one of those stages, i.e. 1

In that sequence, we have assumed that the receiver is either listening or thinking about something related to the communication. Now, if we are honest, we can think of those occasions when we drift on to other thoughts which are not particularly relevant but which do stop the listening process. This happens to everyone, including those who should be listening to us!

If we recognise that listening is something that cannot be taken for granted, we can test to see how good we are; develop our skill; and use this experience to get others to listen more effectively to us.

The key to effective listening

The key is in four words: Encouraging, Attentive, Reasonable and Summarise.

The first step in encouraging the client is to respond positively by facing them squarely, maintaining eye contact and an open posture, slightly inclined towards them. Sometimes we may want to get them to continue, or we find it difficult to get them to talk, e.g. when indecision or attitudes are involved. Then we may have to use additional techniques, such as:

  • Non-verbals. May be as simple as a smile/nod, supplemented by "Yes", etc.
  • Supporting comments. Those that indicate "I'm with you, etc." and can be achieved by saying "That's interesting", "What happened next?", etc. or by repeating a key word used by the client.
  • Enlarging. The client may appear to be drying up, but still you feel you haven't understood their point fully. You can encourage them to enlarge by questions like "What makes you say …?" or "How do you mean?"
  • Reflecting. Essentially, this means being "tuned in" to them so that you can show that you have picked up the emotional overtone of what they are saying. It should be possible to start with "You feel that …?" or something similar.

 If we really are encouraging, it helps us to be attentive and this means listening carefully, not only to the words that are said. The full story contains much more than that. For example, sometimes what is not said is a key to vital information.

Listen for discontinuities: omissions, quick changes of subject, etc. If they remain unexplained, you may need to take the client back to them to find out the reason.

There is still more information to be gained for the attentive sales person. It has been found that people attach different weight to the credibility of a person’s communication - 7% for words, 38% non-verbal and 55% body language. Of course, factual information will be conveyed primarily though the words. Interpreting non-verbals and body language is important in identifying feelings and attitudes to your proposals. So we should be listening to the 38%: How it is being said (the tone, etc.) and the 55%: The body language (posture, facial expressions etc).

One of the greatest barriers to effective listening is that people can think four times faster than they can speak. This encourages us to evaluate what a person is saying before they have finished saying it, Stage 2 in the table. We then become absorbed in how we are going to respond when they have finished speaking, Stage 3.

Therefore, being reasonable means suspending judgement until you have heard the speaker outIf you are Encouraging, Attentive and Reasonable, you will be able to Summarise accurately and completely what the client has conveyed. If you know that you are going to have to summarise, it will also make you more alert to picking up points that (a) have been omitted (we are back to what has not been said) and (b) You are not sure about. These may require you to ask some questions before you can summarise fully.

If your summary is not accurate and/or complete the client can possibly put this right, so you get feedback about how well you have been listening. On reviewing that feedback, you may conclude that the problem was their communication. Fair enough - provided it doesn't happen too often! If it does, perhaps you should ask how honest you are being with yourself.

Getting that booking

My recent experience has bought home to me the need to really listen to the client, to try to understand them and their requirements, explore their expectations, involve them fully in the sales process and don’t destroy your own credibility by offering them products which don’t hit the mark.

This makes the really effective sales person.


For more information Peter can be contacted by email at peter_marsh@compuserve.com or by calling 07973 218687.

twn Are you sure that you want to switch to desktop version?