Top salespeople know there's a reason nature equipped them with two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. They use their eyes to observe a prospect's nonverbal prompts. They open their ears to listen to what a customer does and doesn't say. And most important of all, über-sales executives don't utter a sound until they've processed exactly what they've seen and heard.

The three best salesmen I've ever met excel at looking and listening before speaking. This despite the fact they work in three completely different fields: food, financial advice, and fashion.

Know how to read

New York City restaurateur Massimo Biberaj studies his customers' eyes each and every night. The owner of Sam's Place, Biberaj says he won't approach a diner unless the two of them have established eye contact: "I read the whites of their eyes. It tells me whether they want another glass of sauvignon or to engage in conversation with me or to simply be left alone."

I can attest to Biberaj's ability to read people. He has always had an awareness of my passion for sports and knows that interacting with other diners will maximize the enjoyment I get from being at his restaurant. So if he finds out someone famous will be there, he'll let me know ahead of time. If I can, I’ll go to the restaurant that night, and he'll introduce me. As a result, I've met former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato, late New York Mayor Ed Koch, erstwhile Yankees slugger Cecil Fielder, and 1990s-era New York Mets utilityman par excellence ("Super") Joe McEwing. Talk about a value add!

Steven L. Nadell, managing director at Wells Fargo Advisors, agrees with Biberaj's approach. And he knows of what he speaks: Nadell was just named one of the organization's Premier Advisors, a notable distinction to be sure. "I find emails are a difficult way to read a client's or prospect's comfort level," Nadell says. "That's because there's no emotion in email unless someone types in capital letters. I can much better assess clients on the phone but really prefer face-to-face meetings."

I can vouch for Nadell's insistence on in-person interaction. He walks me through my portfolio over lunch or dinner at least four times a year. That's when he'll probe for my current risk tolerance, and we'll collaborate on the next quarter's investment strategy.

Modesto G. ("Moe") Gonzales is the manager at Garmany, a Red Bank, New Jersey, clothing store whose website copy describes it as "an exquisite upscale men's and women's clothing establishment regarded as one of the country's top 10 independent retail establishments." I can say from experience that Garmany is, indeed, first rate. But I shop there because of Gonzales.

Just like Biberaj and Nadell, Gonzales excels at face-to-face interactions. He opts for ears over eyes. "When I meet a customer, I listen," he says. "I don't try to push. My goal is to first establish a customer's confidence by being truthful and honest with them."

And Gonzales is just that: up front and gracious but honest. Though I may like a certain Armani jacket, he will tell me if it doesn't match my body type. He'll also let me know if a pair of slacks will look better on me with or without cuffs. I'd call Gonzales a strategy consultant for the body.

The right amount of pressure

Gonzales also knows when to say "when" in terms of pressuring customers. "I try not to call or text a customer more than three times a year," he says. "I'll call them on their birthday or wedding anniversary, and I'll also let them know of a new clothing line's arrival, but that's it."

I appreciate Gonzales's sensitivity, because I detest high-pressure sales tactics. Once, a colleague asked me to help one of his buddies, a public affairs professional who, in midcareer, had lost his way. I met with the guy and told him I'd be happy to contact two executive search consultants on his behalf. I did so but was unsuccessful in making initial contact.

That's when he stepped over the line. He began hounding me day after day with emails that read, "Steve, it's Jim. Did you connect with either Tim or Ann?" At first, I told him to be patient. Then, his incessant stalking began to anger me. Now, I've not only ceased all contact but would tell others to beware of him if he listed me as a reference.

Nadell, too, doesn't believe in chasing prospects. "It's simply not my style," he says. "And at this stage in my career, I turn down more clients than I accept. I believe the best salespeople should be interviewing clients at the same time we're having our tires kicked. I only want clients that want to be here and want to work with me."

That is so simple, yet so smart. I've been doing my best to encourage my fellow partners to become more selective in choosing clients we feel are worthy of representation. I see business the same way Nadell does: It's a partnership between client and salesperson.

And that partnership is built upon trust. Biberaj stresses that trust is critical to any salesperson's success: "Look, it's simple. It's the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you, yourself, want to be treated. If you do, trust will follow."

Three final sales tips

Gonzales, Biberaj, and Nadell each have one more piece of advice for you and your sales team:

  • "Be honest with yourself and the customer," Biberaj says. "I always ask the chef to eat his own food each night before I'll offer it to my customers. If it's not good enough for him, I won't put it on the specials list." 
  • "You have to truly love what you do for a living in order to be successful in attracting and retaining customers," Nadell says. "Clients always come first. In fact, try to put yourself in the clients' shoes and imagine what their wants and needs are. It'll make you a better salesperson." 
  • "Every one of Garmany's customers is highly successful in their field of work," Gonzales says. "As a result, they're finely attuned to giving and receiving top-notch service. If you can't provide the very best service, they'll find someone else who can." 

I choose to do business with these three gentlemen because they each provide great products and service. But I also engage with them for other reasons: They listen to me. They anticipate my needs. And most important of all for me, they're genuinely good guys whom I feel privileged to also call friends. And that, in my opinion, is the hallmark of a truly great client-salesman relationship.