The following is a guest post by Inside Sales trainer, Danna Zakai.

When I started my sales career, I didn’t know it was going to become a “career”, or just how deeply I would fall in love with Sales. I thought of it simply as a job. I spent the first month learning everything I could about our product and company. I also practiced my demo on all of my (willing) friends and asked them to give me their honest feedback. But it wasn’t until I presented my first real client demo that I realized I was missing one of the key ingredients of a successful Sales pitch.

My first real demo was with the assistant of someone who was only mildly interested in the product, and she was silent during the whole demo. I was nervous, and although I never burst into tears – which I had heard was sometimes the case for first-time salespeople – I knew it wasn’t a good demo, and predictably, she wasn’t interested.

What I know today is that I wasn’t interesting, largely because I was neither engaged nor engaging enough myself. I didn’t make the effort to get to know her, her company, or their needs, so I consequently lost the sale and “burned” the lead. It took a few more lost sales for me to finally get it: I wasn’t doing enough to understand my potential client.

In order to understand your leads, whether you’re in a budding startup or an established company with well-known products, you need to do some groundwork, and the very first call with a prospective client is an ideal opportunity to learn more about who you’re dealing with.

Here are 6 tips for structuring a sales call so that you can truly understand your prospective clients in order to increase your odds of delivering a more effective sales pitch, and locking in those all-important “next steps”:

1. Qualify your lead
The first thing to do is ascertain whether the lead is relevant. This part is called “qualification”, and it simply means asking the lead to tell you a little about their company, their role, what problem they are looking to solve or goal they are hoping to achieve.

You want to know everything that is relevant to the sale: are they currently using a product by one of your competitors? What is their reason for speaking to you? What are they missing and would like to gain by using your product? What are their main pain points? How soon would they like to start using your solution? Etc.

Listening to what your potential client tells you seems like an obvious step, but too many Salespeople fail to do this adequately. With so many other things on our minds, many of us rush the “listening” part of the call and miss certain things our leads say that could be key to understanding how they can best benefit from the solution we’re offering (if at all).

We also often fall into the habit of talking too much about our product instead of listening to the leads about their needs. This is where the 80/20 rule – which applies in so many situations, not just Sales – should be applied. In this case, it means that you should be listening 80% of the time and speaking only 20% of the time during a sales call (which isn’t always easy for ‘typical’ salespeople who really like to hear themselves talk).

3. Understand the lead “type” and identify his main pain points
One of the reasons for encouraging your prospects to speak is so that you can get a feel for their personality: Are you talking to a “straight to the point” type of person or someone who enjoys small talk? Is this person new to the company? Does he already know about your product and your competitors? Is he the decision maker? What is the decision making process in his company?

By getting a feel for their personality, you can better understand how to relate to prospective clients, and how to help them relate to you. Your goal is to encourage them to reveal the real reason that they are looking into your product, what problem they are looking to solve and what pain points you’re in a position to alleviate.

If you deliver your pitch or demo without first knowing who you’re speaking to – how can you know what to focus on, what pain point to emphasize, and how to navigate the call in general?

Many solutions that we sell have dozens of features and value points – but a great salesperson is usually “great” because they understand what “type” of leads they’re talking to and what aspects of their solution are the most relevant and valuable to them.

4. Present your solution
After your prospect speaks, it’s then your turn (this is your precious 20%). The first thing you should do is make sure you understand what he said, and a good way to do this is to repeat a summary of his explanation in your own words.

Once a lead confirms that you have indeed understood him, you can present your pitch and explain how your product works and how it can specifically benefit this particular lead based on the specific requirements they shared with you (feel free to check out my post on the 6 elements of a well-crafted sales pitch).

5. LISTEN (yes, again)
Now that you’ve delivered your pitch, find out what your lead thinks about your solution. Does he understand its value and how it works? Does he have any questions or objections? And incidentally, don’t be afraid of questions or objections, you should actually welcome them, because they are your opportunity to convince skeptical leads and win them over.

If your prospects don’t voice any objections it might mean that they are happy with the solution and are likely purchase it, but it can also mean that they have objections and don’t feel comfortable saying so, or worse, that they simply don’t care. That’s why you should always encourage your prospects to share their feedback with you as openly as they can.

6. Don’t end the call without establishing clear “next steps”
A Sales call doesn’t end when you hang up. Both of you should always know what’s going to happen next, and it is often a good idea to let the lead be part of determining these next steps so that they fell like they are part of the process: Should you schedule another call? Will someone else from your company or his company be joining the process? Do they want start a pilot or demo the solution? Do want to go ahead and buy and if so, when?

I’d like to end with something I once heard that really resonated with me:

“An interested person is an interesting person.”

When you think about your friends, who are the ones you enjoy speaking to the most: the ones who constantly do all the talking or the ones you know you can count on to also be good listeners? For me – it’s the latter, and just as I favor people in my personal life who are interested enough about me to listen to what I have to say, I know I’m far more likely to respond favorably as a prospective client (yes, it happens) when I’m on the other end of a Sales call with a salesperson who takes the time to truly understand me.

More posts by Danna Zakai:
8 Tips that ANYONE can use to boost their Salesmanship
6 elements of a well-crafted sales pitch
How to hire a Sales shark for your startup
Why trust is the ultimate key to making a sale (plus 9 tips on how to create and maintain it)