Many people wrongly believe that selling consists mostly of pitching a product, a solution, or an idea. In fact, the most important part of selling is listening to the customer, especially after you've asked a question.

Unfortunately, most people are really bad at listening, not just to customers but to everybody else. With that in mind, here is an easily followed six-step method:

1. Ask thoughtful questions.

Everybody knows that closed-ended questions (i.e., those with one-word answers) are conversation stoppers. However, that doesn't mean all open-ended questions are created equal. Rather than asking obviously leading questions (e.g., "What are your needs when it comes to widgets?"), use questions or statements that invite the customer to expound upon a situation without a preconceived agenda (e.g., "Tell me about how your company uses widgets").

2. Relax and breathe deeply.

The popular term "active listening" is misleading. Listening is by its nature a passive activity in which you put yourself into a frame of mind that's receptive to what the other person is saying. This is only possible when your body isn't itching for action. Therefore, when you're listening, make a quick check of your body, relax any tense muscles, and consciously take deeper-than-normal breaths. When you first start doing this, it might take a couple of seconds, but if practiced regularly, it will quickly become habitual.

3. Suppress your internal dialogue.

While somebody else is talking, it's deceptively easy for your mind to take control by mentally finishing the customer's sentences and deciding what you're going to say next. Other people sense that you're doing this, realize that they haven't been heard, and resent you for being disrespectful. Therefore, when you're listening, put your mental focus on the actual words that the customer is saying. Imagine yourself listening to an audio book or radio program that's so engrossing that it takes you out of yourself. Again, this takes some practice.

4. Take a moment to consider.

Because you've suppressed your internal dialogue, you're going to need to a little time to think about what the customer actually said, and then formulate your response. Weirdly, some people think that pausing makes them seem stupid or inattentive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Customers--like everyone else--are always complimented and pleased when a listener cares enough to take the time to really consider what they've actually said.

5. Acknowledge what was said.

Before you add your thoughts to the conversation, confirm to the customer that you've listened and really heard what was said. If the customer's statement was relatively simple, your acknowledgment should just be conversational, anything from "Ah!" to "That's interesting." If the customer said something complex, though, you should briefly summarize what the customer said. This not only confirms that you've been listening but also allows the customer to correct misconceptions and provide clarifications.

6. Address what the customer actually said.

The previous five steps are pointless if you use your speaking time to talk about where you wish the conversation were going, as opposed to where it is actually going. This is not the time for a sales pitch or a sales message or anything canned. Confine your comments to what the customer actually said, your reaction to it and your thoughts on the subject. Only then should you move the conversation forward with another thoughtful question or a request for the next step.

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