From the February 2007 issue of Entrepreneur

In real estate, there are three keys to success: location, location, location. And in sales, the keys to success are listen, listen, listen. Being in control of the sale does not mean talking all the time and pitching your product. Instead, when you listen and ask questions that focus on the customer's needs, you are the one who ends up in control. So why is it so many salespeople seem to lack listening skills?

One reason is that we like to talk about ourselves and what we know. Also, our enthusiasm for our product has us yip-yapping away, hoping that some of what we say will make an impact on the customer. And talking about ourselves takes little effort.

It does, however, take a great deal of effort to become a great listener. But it can be done if you make a conscious effort. Here are four ways to get started.

1. "Do you mind if I take some notes?" What message comes across to you when you are speaking to a group of people and they start taking notes? It means what you have to say is important. Whenever I have a face-to-face meeting, I'll ask if they mind if I take some notes. It shows right away that I want to hear what's important to them. Most of the time I've prepared questions in advance based on the research I've done on that organization. Some salespeople I've spoken with even put the word listen in big letters at the top of their notepad to remind themselves to listen when they begin to talk too much.

2. Dig deeper. Don't settle for what the customer says on the surface; have him expand on his key needs and challenges. This helps me uncover hot buttons (very important points that the customer says and that I circle, highlight or star on my notepad), which I can use later to explain how my product or service will address them. Sometimes it might be hard to get the customer talking, so I use a technique called parroting--repeating the last few words the customer says in the form of a question so he'll elaborate more on the topic. If the customer says, "That's been a major problem for us," you say, "Problem?" Usually this will prompt the customer to go into greater detail.

3. Check your understanding. Many sales never materialize because of poor communication. We think the customer said one thing, and he thinks he said something else. One way to make sure you're really listening is to ask your customer, "Just to make sure we're on the right track, is your main concern with . . . ?" Simply rephrase what the customer told you based on how you understood it. This will give the customer a chance to say that you're correct or maybe redefine what he or she meant. It also shows the customer you were listening.

4. Practice. Practice your listening skills all the time, not just on sales calls. You never know when the person you're talking to at a wedding, on a plane or at a party will end up being an important prospect. The next time you're at an event and want to be the hit of the party, shut up and listen. Find out as much as you can about the people inside and let them know as little as possible about you. Even if they ask, be brief and turn the conversation right back at them. Don't interrupt; resist the urge to jump into the conversation when they bring up something you're knowledgeable and passionate about. Just watch--you'll begin to learn new, interesting information. It's hard to learn anything with your mouth open.