Companies expend a huge amount of money and effort to identify and qualify sales leads and nurture them to the point where they're ready to have conversations with a real, live salesperson.

Salespeople similarly expend a huge amount of thought and energy on closing deals that turn those sales leads into real, live paying customers. Ironically, the beginning and end of a sales process aren't as important as what happens in the middle.

The middle part is developing the sales lead to the point where it's possible to close the sale. This typically entails having several conversations to understand the customer's needs and determine how you might help.

For each of these conversations, use the following six steps:

1. Have a goal in mind.

If you don't know why you're talking with a customer, the conversation will probably be a waste of time: yours and the customer's. Even if you're only calling to do some relationship building, have a reason for calling.

2. Do some quick research.

Before contacting the customer, find out if there are any recent changes in the customer's business or industry. Check three places: the business news, the customer's website, and (if it's already a paying customer) inside your own company.

For example, suppose you're calling on the VP of manufacturing for XYZ Inc. Here's what you do:

  1. Google "XYZ Inc." news and read the top stories. Pay particular attention to any announcement of financial results or organizational changes.
  2. Click to "XYZInc.com" for new press releases, new products, and (especially) new job openings, which signal where a company is expanding or needs help.
  3. Check your customer support. Has anyone called with a problem? If so, how was it resolved? Have there been late orders? If so, what's their current status?

3. Plan the conversation.

Depending on your goal (step 1) and what you've learned from your research (step 2), list the questions you'll ask during the conversation. For example, if your goal is to better understand your customer's purchase, your questions might include:

  • How have you purchased this sort of product in the past?
  • Who are the stakeholders who might object to the purchase?
  • What criteria is your boss using to evaluate alternatives?

Three important planning tips:

  1. Keep your list short. While each conversation is an opportunity to learn, if you pepper the customer with a series of questions, you'll seem pushy or, worse, desperate.
  2. Don't rehearse. Reading questions from a list or repeating them from memory makes you sound like a sales trainee. Instead, prior to the meeting, write down keywords to remind you of the general lines of inquiry you'd like to pursue.
  3. Too vague is better than too specific. Don't worry about asking a question that's "too open-ended." If your question isn't specific enough, the customer will ask you to clarify. And then you're already in a conversation, which is half the battle.

4. Take good notes.

Your record of the conversation is as important as the conversation itself. If you don't take notes, you probably won't remember what was said or what commitments you or the customer made to each other.

5. Close on next steps.

At the end of the conversation, obtain a commitment from the customer to move to the next step. For example, if your goal is to understand the customer's buying process, the next step might be to set up a meeting with a stakeholder.

6. Document the conversation.

At the end of the conversation, use your notes to compose an email to the customer summarizing what you learned (to confirm you've got it right) and repeating any commitments that were made.