Selling means understanding a customer's needs and crafting a solution to meet those needs. Here's a simple 10-step process for making sure that your customer meetings move your opportunities forward:

1. Do Your Research

Never have a conversation with a customer without first using the Internet to find out about the company's basic structure, executives, customers, and business model. The more you prepare, the more likely you'll have a productive conversation.

2. Define Areas of Inquiry

Based upon your research, create a list of three to five "areas of inquiry"--places where you'd like to know more about the customer's business. Don't create specific scripted questions, because those always end up sounding phony.

3. Get to the Point

When you first meet with the customer, make it clear that you value the customer's time by keeping the social chitchat to a minimum. If anything, "warm up" the conversation by asking something about the customer's career.

4. Ask a Meaningful Question

As soon as possible, add value by asking a question that will help the customer clarify his or her thoughts and ideas. Don't mine for information; focus on truly understanding the customer's position. Be curious!

5. Listen Carefully and Consciously

Hear what the customer has to say, without trying to frame what you're going to say next. See the situation through the customer's frame of reference without automatically trying to create a sales opportunity.

6. Provide an Active Acknowledgment

Never interrupt. Redescribe what the customer said, in a way that confirms that you were really listening to the customer (and not your internal "gotta make a sale" dialogue) and that you understand what the customer was telling you.

7. Respond Appropriately

Articulate a clear response that matches the customer's frame of reference. This builds credibility and a collaborative customer relationship, which are the core elements of a consultative sale.

8. Go Back to Step Four

Repeat Steps Four through Seven as necessary until you've gotten through at least two of the "areas of inquiry" defined in Step Two. At the end of this process, you will better understand the customer's thoughts, ideas, and needs.

9. Obtain a Commitment

As the meeting ends, assess the state of the opportunity and decide what's the natural next step. Then ask the customer for a commitment to that next step. Example: "Sounds like we need to get our engineers talking. How does that sound to you?

10. Accept an Action Item

Never leave the "ball" in the customer's "court." Always make certain that the result of the meeting is some action that you will take that formalizes the commitment in Step Nine. Example: "I'll call my guys and email you some dates and times."

The above is expanded from conversations about the sales process with Jeffrey Seeley, CEO of the sales training firm Carew International, and former sales guru Wayne Turmel, who's now one of my favorite management bloggers.

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