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Neuroscience in Sales: Note-Taking and Its Impact on Active Listening

We’ve often stressed the importance of active listening as one of the primary paths to unlocking customer needs and situations in the sales process. Less discussed in the sales world is note-taking and how the different methods neurologically impact the brain – including the tie-in to active listening.

Primary Note-taking Methods

1. Pen and paper

Note-taking by hand is, of course, valuable and aids in active listening by forcing the sales rep to pay attention and selectively write down notes of key details. It’s also in many ways the easiest method to employ – all you need is paper and pen. No need to worry about the battery running out, either.

More to the point, as Stanislas Dehaene, psychologist at the College de France observed, writing by hand stimulates neural circuits in the brain that make learning easier. Therefore, a sales rep who wants to focus on learning and memory should strongly consider hand-writing notes as part of the discussion and conversations in sales. It also makes you look far more attentive to what the customer is actually saying (and in practice, you are).

The downside is that this requires a judgement call as to what’s valuable and what isn’t. It’s possible that some small detail might not seem critical or noteworthy at the time to the sales process and relationship, but later proves valuable. Only it’s not in your notes.

2. Laptop or tablet

The other main usage is by typing – either on laptop or tablet.The pro here is obvious – it allows you to write down everything the person is saying, ensuring that nothing is lost. You can also more easily use symbols and assign hotkey shortcuts to common phrases and problems you encounter in your industry and target markets, thereby saving time.

The downside is that however comprehensive your note-taking in this format is, it actually harms your ability to actively listen. As Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA found, taking notes by laptop results in decreases in attention, focus, and memory recall, and other research revealed typing doesn’t activate memory and learning neural circuits in the brain.

While technology is fantastic, and many sales reps take advantage of the advancements offered by it, in this instance, it’s a strategy that perhaps should be discontinued in favor of manual hand writing. But what if there was a way to leverage technology’s completeness without its drawbacks? As it turns out, there might well be.

The Technology Assistants to Active Listening

1. Automated notetaking and transcription tools

One of the major advances in sales enablement technology in recent years has been the inclusion of automated note-taking and transcription features embedded within many web conferencing programs and some sales enablement suites.

The benefits are obvious – now everything can be recorded without the sales rep becoming distracted, thereby freeing them up to focus more attentively on the conversation they’re having with the customer. However, the manual jotting down of notes can still be invaluable – not only for the reasons we discussed earlier, but as a backup of the highlights in case something goes wrong with the automation process.

2. Metrics and analytics.

For sales teams that dive deeply into metrics and analytics, some software includes the ability to track KPIs.

The best KPI in terms of active listening improvement is one that analyzes the amount of time spent talking vs listening (a metric Gong, an organization that conducts research in sales analytics, frequently uses in their studies). It might seem basic, but it’s a quick and simple way to catch when sales reps are spending too much time talking and not enough time listening. Or, if the talk/listen ratio seems right, but the outcomes from the meetings haven’t gone as expected, it’s an opportunity to coach on active listening vs passive or inattentive listening.

Notetaking and active listening are closely intertwined techniques for sales reps. High performance in both areas is vital for successful, productive conversations with prospects and clients. The development of new technologies has freed up time and space for sales reps to be more effective in talking with clients – as well as opened up more avenues for active listening coaching opportunities.