Oscar Trimboli | The Cost of Not Listening
Michael Webb: B2B sales and marketing works to find the highest quality prospects, reach decision makers, and sell value. Operational excellence uses data and systems thinking to make changes that cause improvement and eliminate waste. My name is Michael Webb and this is the Sales Process Excellence podcast. In the next 30 to 40 minutes, we’re going to destroy the myth that these two groups conflict and show you how to bring both strategies together to create more wealth for your company and your customers.
Hello, this is Michael Webb and I’m delighted today to introduce you to a fellow I just learned about about two weeks ago with a fascinating background and a very fascinating and important topic. His name is Oscar Trimboli. Oscar, welcome to the podcast.
Oscar Trimboli: Good day, Michael. I’m looking forward to speaking to you and listening to you as well.
Michael Webb: Oscar, if you can’t tell from that little snippet of his voice, he is currently speaking from Sydney, Australia. And so it’s in the morning his time; in the afternoon, my time. And our topic today is going to be listening. Everybody knows in business to business, listening is a crucial topic, not just interpersonally but inter-organizationally. So Oscar, please give us a little background about your career and how you got into this fascinating topic.
Oscar Trimboli: Michael, I’m on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners before I leave this planet. I think I’m obsessed with the commercial cost of not listening. Every employee that’s ever left an organization, every customer you’ve lost to a competitor, every supplier that’s not giving you their best, has all come about through a lack of listening. Every project that’s run over schedule and every pipeline that’s blocked in the middle, like a plumbing system where the surges is backed all the way back up, it’s all a result of not listening.
A lot of us think that our pipeline should have this mythical shape that’s a beautiful wide funnel at the top and it comes narrow towards the end. And then these crazy people, the customers, get in the way. And the reason most of us have this really wide funnel right in the middle where it should be narrowing is because we’re not listening.
And the most important thing we’re not listening to is what’s not said. Too many of us are listening to what is said and not enough of us spend time exploring what isn’t said. So if you take one thing away from today, it’s the 125-900 rule. I speak at 125 words a minute, but I can think up to 900 words a minute. So that means the first thing out of my mouth, there’s an 11% chance that what I’m saying is what I’m meaning. And for most people in sales, what they do is they only listen to what’s said. Great sales leaders, great sounds professionals, listen for what’s unsaid.
Michael Webb: You have a background in B2B you were mentioning before, run through that for us. I think my audience would… It would help them understand where you’re coming from.
Oscar Trimboli: I started off as an audit clerk in an accounting firm. And six weeks in, we were working on manual spreadsheets in those days. A3 pieces of paper with pencil, so I’m dating myself here. And my manager discovered six weeks in that I had this thing called dyscalculus, which meant I transposed all my numbers, which kind of ended my career in accounting very, very quickly. And as a result, I was kind of on a cadet ship where they would pay for my books while I was studying and working full-time. And I was completely devastated because my dad had always said to me, “There’s one job that will never get done awy with… You’ll always have to have accountants. So become an accountant.”
And my managing partner of the accounting firm came up to me and says, “Well, Oscar, what do you know about computers?” And I said, “Well, Bill, I know absolutely nothing.” And he said, “That’s fantastic. We’ll never lie to each other going forward. You will now install the accounting software in this organization or you’ll need to leave. So the choice is completely up to you.” So that started a journey of installing, implementing, and selling, doing the professional services and installations and implementations, training beyond in accounting software, whether that’s sort of small accounting practices or large corporations. And I spent two decades doing that.
Then I went into work in product management inside a big telecommunications company and spent a lot of time intersecting between engineering, marketing, and the sales organization. And then finally 11 years at Microsoft doing a range of roles from sales, product management, operations. And even rebuilt the graduate program while I was doing my day job there as well. So most of my life has been stepping into lobbies inside buildings, going and visiting reception, and having conversations with customers who want to buy software of some kind.
Michael Webb: Okay. So now you speak and you consult about listening, which is the Jack of all trades tool that you need to have in your pocket if you’re trying to deal with and influence people. So what experience did you have that caused you to make this big transition from being part of an organization and helping them succeed to an independent person helping people with this tool or method? What experience was it or trials caused you to do that?
Oscar Trimboli: Michael, many people often said to me, “Could you teach me how to do that?” And often I’d say, “What do you mean ‘do that’?” And they said, “The way you listen, you hear things that no one else in the room is hearing.” And I kind of often brushed it off, but then a vice president at Microsoft said to me after a very tense negotiation we had, at about the 20-minute mark, I asked a question, which was simply, “What assumptions are we really holding tightly that could be completely false?”
The room shifted, the change in dynamic was very noticeable, and at the end of the meeting the vice president said, “Can you stay behind?” That’s kind of like when your wife says to you, “We need to talk.” It’s not a good moment. All I was doing in my head was calculating how many weeks of salary I had left in my bank account. And Tracy said something that stayed with me for the rest of my life. She said, “Oscar, you didn’t notice what happened at the 20-minute mark, but if you could code how you listen, you could change the world.” And all I could say out of my mouth at that time, Michael was, “Do you mean code or code code?” And she said, “No, I mean code code,” which is turn what I know into software, which eventually I guess I’ll do. Code just meant make it into a methodology and put it out in steps like we’ve done with a book and like we’ve done with the playing cards and the jigsaw puzzles and all these other things we use to teach leaders how to listen.
And during that time I came across a really interesting statistic. By the third decade of a corporate career, you will have had up to 15 training courses in how to speak, yet no training whatsoever in how to listen. Now, if we believe that communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening, with only 2% of us having any training in how to listen, I think that’s one of the big productivity hacks of the 21st century. If you want to stop doing back-to-back meetings, if you want to stop having conversations about opportunities that are slowing down, I think it’s listening that’s the key. So if it wasn’t for Tracy pointing out to me that there is a way to code listening, I wouldn’t be talking to you today, Michael.
Michael Webb: Articulate it into something that other people could implement what you do. The way your mind works then enables you to exhibit that behavior. What were some of those things?
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah, we’ve coded it down now to the five levels of listening. The five levels of listening start with listening to yourself first; listening to the content second; listening for the context third; listening for what’s unsaid four; and then listening for meaning, level five. Most people don’t understand that the listener’s job is not to make sense of what the speaker is saying. The job of the listener is to help the speaker make sense of what they’re thinking.
And for a lot of us, we spend all of our time trying to make sense of what they’re saying, where all we need to do is use a couple of really simple phrases like, “I’m curious what else you’re thinking about. Tell me more.” Or, “What else?” If you can use these simple phrases you’ll start to unlock what’s unsaid. You’ll start to unlock those 900 words that are stuck inside their head.
So for a lot of us, we get obsessed with fixating and focusing on words that people actually say, yet there’s eight times as many words stuck in their head that they haven’t said. Now, Michael, you’ve often been in situations where if you’re saying, “Tell me more,” they will draw in a breath. They’ll go and they’ll say, “You know what’s really important we haven’t discussed?” Or they’ll say, “You know what’s critical? You know what matters the most to me? You know what I mean to say is…” All these phrases will start to come out because people have been given the time to think a little bit longer about what they want to actually say. For most people, what’s inside their head is like a washing machine on wash cycle. It’s dirty, it’s sudsy, it’s agitated, it’s moving around. And the minute they talk, it’s like they’re in the rinse cycle.
So I don’t know about you, Michael, but at my stage in life, if I go to a doctor and they give me an 11% chance of surviving a surgery, I’m asking for a second opinion. But most of us in B2B conversations take a punt every single time we take an uncalculated bet that we will work with the 11%, rather than doubling our odds and simply saying, what else? And doubling that to 22% to get another 125 words out of the speaker’s mouth. But our ego gets in the way. We want to get to listen for product or service codewords that we can latch on to. So I think for a lot of us, everything we do, we go, hey, they speaking at 125 words a minute, but they’ve got 900 stuck in the head. Ask them, what else? And you’ll quickly get to the end of the solution faster.
Michael Webb: It sounds like what you’re really saying is that the job of the listener is to help the speaker improve their ability to think critically.
Oscar Trimboli: That’s the job of the listener. The listener’s job is not there to make sense of it themselves because the likelihood that the first thing that comes out of their mouth is something that’s sensible, is 11%. And most of the time clients will say to me, they’ll try these techniques and they go, “Wow, that took a little bit longer, but I realize it actually made it shorter in the longterm because we got to the point of asking who else is involved in this approval process?” Or we got to the point of asking, “When projects like this have been running your organization before, what have been the obstacles getting in the way?” And all of a sudden this huge landscape opens up not just to the current opportunity, but it also opens up opportunities for people to think about that they’ve never considered as well.
I think one of the big things that sellers don’t do well… I think sellers do a good job of trying to beat the competition, but they don’t do a good job of selling the business case because they outsource that to the client. So one of the things you want to be able to do is listen for how the organization, not just how they buy, but how the business case gets approved internally. I’ve always worked with great salespeople, and three of them just all happen to be Scottish, Michael, and all of them said to me, “It’s not enough that we beat the competition. We’re competing against toilet paper, we’re competing against telephone purchases, we’re competing against oil consumption. You don’t know what you’re competing against, Oscar, until you understand what it’s going to take to get a business case over the line.” And if you listen for the business case, rather than beating your competition, the bottom of the funnel will move much faster as well.
Michael Webb: Yeah, so I spent about eight or nine years in professional sales training, and one of the key skills that we taught our clients was essentially active listening. We called it conducting research meetings and it was active listening. So the goal was be able to talk only 5% of the time and get the client or the prospect to talk 95% of the time. Because you’re asking great questions and you’re using what they tell you in response to probe more deeply. People love to talk about themselves, but a key to doing that was preparation. You had to spend some time before that meeting, to find out what you could learn about their business and about the person you were talking to, what they’ve accomplished, their personal and professional kind of a background, so that you could use that information and by the way you sort of automatically word your questions that way, Once you’ve done that homework, your questions are more intelligent.
They’re reflecting an insight and a knowledge and a respect for the person. If you’ve done your preparation, you’ve done your homework, you’ve got a plan for the meeting and so forth. A lot of the listening, it’s in the moment when we’re having the conversation. I’d like to ask how important do you think it is, the preparation and then the follow-up after the conversation?
Oscar Trimboli: Listening takes place before a conversation, during a conversation, and after the conversation. There’s three parts to listening. Most people do hearing well, but they don’t do listening well. The difference between hearing and listening is action. Actually taking action, because you can go on, hear a conversation three times and the person will think you’re not actually listening to them if you haven’t taken action. Listening is also the willingness that-
Michael Webb: My wife accuses me of that all the time. She tells me it over and over that I’m not listening. I’m sorry. I digress. Go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Oscar Trimboli: Oh, no. I can totally relate. Look, Michael, it reminds me of a guy called Mick who called me up on a Monday, two years ago. I can still remember the time on the clock in the car when he called. It was 8:15 on a Monday morning and he said, “You nearly cost me my marriage, Oscar.” And this was a guy who’s actually in B2B selling. He said to me, “You nearly cost me my marriage last Friday. My wife said to me something you never want to hear. She said, ‘Mick, we need to talk.’ The kids had been put to bed, and after 12 years, I was really worried and my wife just came out and said, ‘You can tell me the truth. Who are you having an affair with? I know in the last 90 days you’ve been having an affair with somebody.'”
And he said in his head he wanted to say, “What?” But what he said is, “Tell me more.” And she said, “Well, the way you’ve been paying attention to me, you’re obviously covering something up.” Mick looks at her straight in the eye and said, “It’s not what you think. It’s a man.” And with that, she burst out crying and he said, “No, no, no. I’m being taught how to listen by a man and he warned me not to do this at home because it would leak over and have unintended consequences. I’ve been taught how to listen.” And straight after that, his wife said to him, “I’ve never felt sexier in the last 90 days because you’ve paid me so much attention.”
Now what happened next, I can’t tell you on this podcast because it’s R-rated. But sometimes we just have to ask, tell me more. Even when it comes to our wives. By the way, there is a listening difference between men and women. Women listen to feel and men listen to fix. So men, stop trying to fix women cause they ain’t broken.
Michael Webb: Now, that’s a good way to sum it up. When we were doing sales training, we would try to get the client to think ahead about the person that they were going to be talking to, and to be on the lookout for potential personal wins, right? And then also, if they’re a department manager or a vice president, past professional accomplishments and what they might be wanting to accomplish professionally. And I really liked what you said, listening means acting. But let me clarify then because that differs between what we said a moment ago about listening is helping the speaker to think critically. Speak about that. You’re helping them think critically, but we’ve just said they know you’re listening because you took an action. But that action has to be something more than just inside the conversation.
Oscar Trimboli: Absolutely. And I’ll give you a really practical, simple example. we’re in a conversation and the customer says, “I’m curious if your product or service does this, could you send me a case study where other customers have done it?” Okay. Simple request. If you don’t act on it, they think you haven’t listened to them. Simple request. Are you doing the followup that you promised to do? Now, most people might think that’s all 101 stuff, but most of us don’t even take the time to confirm in that part of the conversation. So Michael, just so I’m clear, you’d like two case studies from this industry around how they’ve implemented this part of the product? And they go, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I want.” Now if you’d don’t confirm that and you go away and find two generic case studies, again, whatever you bring back they think you have only heard but not listened to them.
So it’s the action you take, which is one of the primary cues that defines your listening effectiveness from the speaker’s perspective. The other oneis the visual signals that you’re giving back to them, but listening is about action in that context.
Michael Webb: Also then, listening is considered to be something that individual people do and it is, but people exist within a system, right? Within the business you’re operating in. I have two questions related to that. The first one is what can executives do to encourage their organization to encourage better listening?
Oscar Trimboli: There’s two simple things executives should be focused on. One, do an annual customer satisfaction survey. Do what’s in the annual customer satisfaction survey. In fact, do not survey your customers again until you’ve done what they asked you in your last survey. Most market research surveys are very expensive doorstops. Twenty, 30, 40 pages of pie charts and verbatims. The customers are telling you exactly the same thing year after year after year, and you go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the competitors are doing this” or the market trend is that.
The other part of this is go back to the customers and tell them what you’ve implemented. Now, the same is true for employee engagement surveys. For any executives out there, for goodness sake, stop sending out employee engagement surveys and stop sending out emails to ask people to participate in employee engagement surveys. They will believe that the employee engagement survey’s worth filling in when you do what they asked you to do in the last engagement survey as well.
For a lot of people in B2B selling as well, you need to be listening to your regulators, and a lot of us do a really poor job of listening to the regulators because we comply with the most minimum requirements around compliance rather than listening to what’s really behind that particular outcome.
Michael Webb: What do you mean by listening to regulators?
Oscar Trimboli: A regulator might be if you’re in the banking industry, you’ll have a banking regulator. If you’re in the pharmaceutical industry, you’ll have a regulator. If you’re in the transportation industry, you’ll have a regulator. And a lot of CEOs do the minimum when it comes to listening to the regulators. So we need to understand the intention of what the regulators are trying to achieve, not just the bare minimum. If we want to do listening at table stakes, our license to operate as a business or an industry will eventually evaporate if we’re not careful. As a leader in a system, the most important way you can help the organization to listen at a systemic level is you need to be a role model for listening.
There’s an interesting parallel here, Michael. A lot of people ask me, “How do I teach my kids how to listen?” And I said, “You already are by your actions. The way you listen to your kids is the way they listen to you.” And the same is true for CEOs. If you think your sales team aren’t listening, it’s more than likely you’re a great role model for a lack of listening.
So are you taking that extra bit of time to understand what pressure the sales team’s under and helping them with that? Meaning, are you helping them with the actions they need from you, whether that’s pricing relief, whether that’s engineering support, whether that’s a marketing support, whether that’s partnerships that you need to form. These are all ways that a CEO can be listening. And the thing a CEO does much better, and is much better positioned than others, is the listening beyond the organizational boundaries and listening to industry trends and overseas trends.
Michael Webb: I said there were two parts to that about listening for leadership in the organization and you already answered the second one, because my question was going to be how do we help our organization become a better listener?
And you said, do voice of customer surveys but don’t do another one until you act on the first one. So that’s brilliant. I haven’t ever heard it stated that way before, but I have heard organizations where the senior executives are so interested and riveted on the financial results, and naturally people who work there are giving them the information about the financial results. But those same executives aren’t asking questions about the customers and what value the customers get from working with us, and what problems that customers have and how do we know that? And unless the CEO is interested in listening to that, his employees aren’t going to be interested in listening to it either. Have you seen that sort of thing too?
Oscar Trimboli: And that’s a really simple thing. In working with some CEOs in these environments, one of the questions I always ask them is color-code your calendar. Color-code it internally and externally. Color-coded meeting invites you’re sent out versus meeting invites you’re accepting. And of the external meetings you’re having, what percent are actually with customers? Now, often we assume that CEOs are spending a good chunk of time with customers and their calendar’s tough. That’s why they have helpers. They have chief of staff, they have executive assistants who make sure their calendars work.
I have consistently found the correlation between sales growth and the lack of sales growth is the CEOs who spend more time riding shotgun with sales teams to go and visit customers have greater sales growth than those that don’t. And they’re not there to lend anything other than their presence to the conversation; they rarely will do anything. And the most effective CEOs will always ask on the drive back or the flight back or the train trip back from the customer meeting, “How did that go?”“
And they’re asking for what the sales rep listened for, and equally what the sales rep wasn’t listening for.
Michael Webb: Yes.
Oscar Trimboli: I think great leaders that I’ve worked with in those situations aren’t prescriptive. They ask really good how questions and what questions, because why questions are loaded with judgment. So be careful where you use why-based questions. So if you say to the sales rep in that case, “Why did you talk about our pricing at that part of the conversation?” As opposed to, “How is it that you’re brought up pricing at that part of the conversation?” These have got the same intent but they’re heard very differently by the rep.
For us, we need to think about the first time we ever got asked why-based questions was between the age of four and seven when we did something wrong. “Why did you spill the milk?” “Why did you use crayons on the walls in the house?” And we are triggered back to those times. A lot of FBI hostage negotiators and suicide counselors all talk about the fact that asking why-based questions too early in the relationship is completely counterproductive. And I think methodologies that bludgeon people with five whys and fishbone diagrams without some finesse and some nuance might miss the point. So how- and what-based questions will elicit more insight for the conversation than purely five whys in a row, as an example.
Michael Webb: I think that’s a great point because a lot of the people in my audience… There’s a lot of profound knowledge in process excellence and the training that you get to be able to figure out the five whys to solve a problem, the training that you get to map out the flow to measure things. These are very, you call them left brain I guess, but there are tools that really do open up understanding of causes and effects.
But you’re right, inside an organization you have human beings and human beings are subject to cause an effect also. And what they can read into your questions may not be what you intend. And so until you have a relationship and a culture there where your intention is, it’s clear that you’re not criticizing someone. I totally agree with you. I think that’s a really good tip. Helpful information.
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah, Michael, this showed up for me about a year-and-a-half ago. I was presenting to a room of 86 people, managers, inside a pharmaceutical company. I was brought in to talk about the five levels of listening, but if you ever walked into a building and you can feel the dripping from the air conditioning ducts… I was speaking in this really narrow room and so normally when you speak the room’s wider than it is longer. This was the opposite. It was narrower and it felt darker, and there was just tension in there.
Twenty minutes into my speech, I turned to my host, the CEO, who was down to my left in this very narrow meeting room and I said, “If you don’t mind, I just sense I need to ask the audience a question.” And he looked at me as if we were in a comic strip movie and he just laser-lighted through his eyes and blew my head off as if, “Why you going off script? This is not what we agreed. You’re here to talk about listening. What do you mean? Asking questions of the audience?”
Michael Webb: “Tell them about listening, dammit!”
Oscar Trimboli: I just turned to him and said, “Look, do you trust me?” And he goes, “Well, do I have a choice?” Said with every bit of contempt you could think. And I said, “Yes you do. I want to do this with your permission.” And he goes, “Go ahead.” In my head, the captioning was going, “Well, I’m not getting paid for this job.” So I asked the room, I said, “Just turn to the person next to you and have a quick chat. What movie is playing out on this site right now?”
And the room exploded from a very tense silence to exploding laughter and people were laughing and giggling and all of that. And the CEO came up to me, switched my mic off, and basically said, “What the heck is going on here?” I said, “Don’t you feel the tension in this room? Don’t you sense that there’s something that’s wrong?” And he says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I said, “Just the why people are.” I said, “Just give me five more minutes and we’ll see where we go now.”
This is a pharmaceutical company. We have intelligent, sophisticated, complex PhDs in chemical engineering. We have Six Sigma black belts all over the place. And I asked for the movies to come back. Michael, the movies were Diehard With a Vengeance, Titanic, every air plane crash, disaster movie you could think of, yet it’s what happened next that changed my mind permanently about the power of listening.
The CEO stepped up on stage, kind of pushed me to one side and grabbed the microphone and said to the room; he almost bowed down when he said it. He said, “Look, I’m really sorry. I’ll offer you my apology. I hate it that you think coming to work every day is a disaster movie. I don’t know what Oscar saw, sensed, or felt in this room, but with his permission, Oscar, can you spend the remaining time to help us fix this issue?”
Now, Michael, at this point of time, I have no idea what the issue is. And I thank the host, who’s very humble in front of his room and leaves the stage by saying, “I need your help to solve this problem. Oscar can help us so far, but I need your help when he leaves the room.” It was part of that mixture that made this a success. So I simply said to the room, “Hey, again, turn to the person next to you. Who aren’t we listening to about this problem?” And again, the room exploded in a whole bunch of energy. The summary was very simple. They weren’t talking to the production line workers, and what I was to learn later on that there was a contamination in one of the lines.
It was a sterile manufacturing plant. An employee who was a 35-year production line worker had pointed out to his manager at daily control meetings for three days in a row and got ignored, and pointed to a pipe he felt was faulty six weeks earlier. And despite the fact they had very fancy pants, Six Sigma, very fancy pants, they weren’t able to identify the issue. They went to this 35-year veteran and asked him what’s wrong and he pointed to the pipe now with these engineers and they fixed the problem in under three days. Now up until that point it was three months. It was tens of millions of dollars stuck in quality assurance because they couldn’t validate the batches that were going out because they couldn’t verify that.
Now the point of this story is really simple. Who aren’t you listening to that’s at the front line? What dogma are you holding onto? Because listening is the willingness to have your mind changed. Now, these people, the cost of not listening for them was stacking up at about a million dollars a week, but a production line worker had told them what the problem was even before it began. And for a lot of us we get bound in process and forget to listen. Don’t get me wrong, process has its place, but process only without listening is like driving a car without a safety belt. You can go as fast as you want, but at some point you’re going to have to swerve or brake and there’s going to be some implications. Listening are the airbags that’s going to make it safe for everybody to speak up.
Michael Webb: That’s a fascinating story, and this podcast is about integrating people and process, helping everyone to become more critical thinkers. And if we grew up in organizations who respected that, then automatically listening would be a higher value. So I really appreciate that story. I appreciate you, Oscar. Thank you for being here. If someone is interested in your work, if they’re interested in learning more about you, your book, how can they get ahold of you?
Oscar Trimboli: Oscartrimboli.com/whitepapers, Michael. You’re going to get the five most common myths about listening, but more importantly, what to do about them both as a one-on-one conversation, as a team meeting, and as a system. How do you listen systemically as well? And that’ll provide a gateway to a whole bunch of resources. The books, the playing cards, the jigsaw puzzles, the Apple award-winning podcast where we interview professional listeners, whether they’re judges, air traffic controllers or suicide counselors or FBI hostage negotiators. Oscartromtoli.com, that’s the place to to get everything from there.
Michael Webb: Again, thank you for coming on the Sales Process Excellence podcast. It’s been a great discussion. I really appreciate it and would love to chat with you again soon.
Oscar Trimboli: Michael, thanks for listening.