Sell by Listening– How Startups Should Be Selling

by / ⠀Entrepreneurship Startup Advice / June 6, 2013

Entrepreneur ListeningA lot of emphasis gets put onto how to sell, when to sell, what to sell, to whom to sell, tactics, tips, lessons learned . . . and the list continues.

What is the most important thing startups should do when they’re selling?  Listen.

It was only a few years ago that I experienced some major personal growth that lead me to this epiphany.  I was 21, and my Internet marketing business had suddenly collapsed.  I found myself living on my uncle’s couch, driving a $500 car and making $11.50 an hour as a dispatcher at a roadside assistance company.  This is not where I had envisioned I would be!

“Be a better listener.”

This is the thought that came to me a few days after New Years.  It was one of those cases where you don’t quite understand how profound it could become or how it could be measured.  You don’t fully understand why you’ve grasped this concept; just that you did.  You’re not even sure exactly what it means, but it sounded powerful enough that, subconsciously, you knew you needed to document it.

It . . . changed . . .everything.

Sales at the time were about me.  How may I help you?  How could my services benefit and complement your business?  How can what I do help you do what you do?

That might describe your approach to selling right now.  It might be how you were trained to sell.  It might even be the most intuitive way to sell.  If I had one word of wisdom about what to do if you are selling this way, it would be: STOP!

Stop selling.  Start listening.

Learn about your prospect.  Then learn more about them.  Understand what causes them to stay up at night.  Ask them about their failures and their successes.  Get them to share their vision and goals for their business.  Find out what their ideal client is like, what their ideal service would be, and what is most profitable for them to do.

As a good friend of mine, Jeff Crilley, once taught me, “Customers don’t about you, unless you can be a benefit to their favorite subject – themselves.”

Everyonecares if it helps them save money, if it helps them make more money, if it helps them save time, or it if helps them achieve their goals.

The only way you can know what their mission is, how it makes them money, or how it saves them time, is to stop talking about your product/service/business and to ask questions about theirs.

Your goal in sales should be to help them come to the conclusion, on their own, that they need you.  If you are competing for their business – and you probably are – being the best listener will help you become their vendor of choice.

The year I made this my goal was the year my business took off to a whole new level. It was no longer about me and what I could do.  It became all about the client  and what we could do better if we worked with together in a mutually beneficial relationship.  It was the year of asking lots of questions, the year I learned to shut up and listen, and the year I learned that it’s not about me, but it’s all about them.

Five Ways to Stop Selling and Start Listening

1)     Position yourself like a consultant – not like a sales person.

Consultants need and want to learn about a business.  You don’t know what’s broken if you don’t ask the right questions and listen to the answers.  Learn about the company before you walk in. Know about key events, past vendors, goals, clients, customers, revenue, products, services, leadership, and more. Print out their LinkedIn profiles and press releases.  Read them, highlight them, take notes, and, if you meet your prospect in person, have all of that information with you to reference.  Nothing blows a prospect away more than seeing all of the preparation you’ve done before hand.

A lot of sales people are ignorant as to what the prospect really wants.  They try to sell the same product or service to everyone they meet without knowing anything about the customer really needs.  Most startups fall right into this trap.  It’s easy to get so excited about what you are trying to sell (the greatest thing ever) that sales people fail to recognize that not everyone wants or needs it!

2)     Stop talking about yourself.

Make your focus all about them.  Understand why they need you.  When a prospect calls, find out why they called and why they called now.  Educate yourself about what they’ve done in the past, if it worked, and why they want to do something different.  Try to discern what they’ve done in the past that has been ineffective and how you can help them to develop a better approach.

For instance, when I first meet or talk to prospect, I don’t mention myself, the company or what we do.  If they ask questions, that’s great.  My focus is 100% on them and what they want.  My goal is for them to realize I’m the expert, by asking engaging, intelligent and well-framed questions about them.

3)     Ask A LOT of questions.

The more someone else talks and the more you listen, the better the perception they have of your value and what you know.  Plus, they like you!

Studies have shown that the less you talk, the more someone likes you. Discipline yourself to not talk about yourself at all.  You should be asking questions, listening to the answers, learning about your prospect or clarifying an answer you heard.

Here’s a list of questions you could potentially ask in a sales scenario.


1)   Who is your ideal client?

2)   What is your main goal of pursuing this opportunity/ effort / campaign?

3)   What are secondary objectives you’d like to accomplish?

4)   What type of budget do you have planned for a project like this?

5)   Describe your ideal scenario for this?

6)   When you think of what this looks like when successful, what do you envision?

7)   What makes you want to pursue something like this now?

8)   Is there a timeframe for the completion/implementation of this?

9)   Have you tried something similar to this before?

10)  If so, what type of results did you see from it?

11)   What makes your business different from others that could be viewed as competitors?

12)   Who would you say are main competitors of yours?

13)    What distinguishes you from them?

14)    What do you enjoy doing most in your business?

15)     Are certain things more profitable than others in your business?

16)     Do you serve specific geographic regions?

17)     What other options of alternatives are you considering right now?

18)     What deadlines would we be working in?

19)     What problems about the current situation keep you up at night?

20)     Describe some of your greatest challenges?

21)     What benefits would come from doing this?

22)     What concerns do you have in doing this?

23)     What keeps your organization functioning?

24)      What needs to change from how it is now?

25)      Are there other decision makers that would need to be addressed or educated on this decision?

26)      How would you prioritize your current needs?

27)      What piece of this is most important to you?

4)     Don’t bring out your sales materials.

Any C-level executive is going to hear a lot of sales presentations.  If they’re anything like the ones I hear, they probably suck.  The focus is always about what they do, and all I can hear is, “blah, blah, blah.”  Sales materials are a crutch for most.  Hide them.  Burn them.  Bury them.  No one cares!  If you’re going to a meeting, sales call, pitch or presentation and you’re asked to leave some materials for them to look over when you show up, you’ve already failed.

Establish value up front.  Remember:  The value you’re bringing to the table is your ability to listen, understand and learn.  Only after you do those things, can you know if you can help.

5)     Listen and Learn.

Learn from the objections you get.  Your customer is trying to tell you something.  Listen to the feedback given.  Stop trying to force your product, service or business into a situation where it doesn’t fit and won’t work.  Instead, mold your business to respond to the specific problems you hear.  Take a slight detour from what you wanted your business to achieve to solve more pressing issues for your customers.  At the same time, make sure you stick to your strengths.  We’ve been asked to do a lot of things that aren’t our forté, and we’ve said “No” to them.  If it’s not what you do best, don’t do it.  You’ll only end up with a less-than-stellar performance and a dissatisfied client.

Stop trying to sell.  Listen and learn.  The sales will follow.

Mike Newhouse helps companies profit through successful, intelligent, well-executed Internet marketing efforts. His company, Impyre LLC, helps others achieve their goals with search marketing and other online marketing methods.  He regularly speaks on Internet marketing and SEO around the country.  He resides in Dallas, Texas.  For more information about Mike, visit or Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.