Salespeople invest time developing their "pitch," formulating questions and preparing responses to expected questions and objections from the prospect. They rehearse, refine and rehearse some more.

Unfortunately, for some salespeople, the preparation becomes a roadblock to their success. How? The salesperson meets with the prospect and delivers his well-crafted well-rehearsed message. But, instead of paying attention to the prospect's reactions, he's running through a mental checklist of important points to cover. He misses the look of puzzlement on the prospect's face. He doesn't notice the prospect casually glancing at phone messages.

At a strategic point in the presentation, the salesperson asks one of the preplanned "commitment" questions. Again, instead of focusing all his attention on the prospect's answer, he is thinking about his response to an anticipated stall or objection. The meeting ends with the prospect promising to give the presentation some thought.

The salesperson deems the meeting a waste of time and blames the prospect for not paying attention and not recognizing the obvious value he presented. He was so concerned about delivering his message as he rehearsed it that he missed the expression of skepticism on the prospect's face. He never recognized the point when the prospect lost interest. He never had a chance to recover.

This example illustrates several problems with a "script-based" sales training and approach for selling. It puts all of the emphasis and pressure on the salesperson. Many salespeople have heard of the "70-30 rule," yet too few salespeople practice it. The 70-30 rule states that a salesperson should only be talking 70 percent of the time but be listening 30 percent of the time – a task made difficult when the salesperson is so concerned with getting a pre-planned presentation out.

We coach our client's salespeople to be mindful of the indicators that they may be talking too much and not listening enough (and listening intently enough) to what the prospect is sharing. One of the telltale signs of poor listening is when a salesperson is thinking about what they're going to say next while the prospect is talking.

Another sure sign of poor listening is when the salesperson misses opportunities to connect with the prospect by using an active listening techniques like: "Jim, let me see if I have this straight. You're willing to change software vendors if your new vendor is willing to take care all of the data conversion from the previous database and provide live training and support for your staff until the new software is functioning well. Do I have it right?"

This isn't to say that pre-call planning is unimportant, but a better method for planning a sales call is to prepare only an outline of the flow of the sales call, beginning with an Up Front Agreement with the prospect about what is going to take place on the call. Next, the salesperson may want to bring out any potential issues or landmines into the light. We teach the salespeople we train that if there's a bomb in the room, you should be the one to light the fuse. After all, when would you like to deal with potential problems – right there in front of the prospect or after you've parted and are now forced to communicate through short email messages devoid of context?

The next important compartment of the sales call outline is a list of tailored questions for the prospect based on the salesperson's pre-call research and general understanding of industry needs, challenges, or what we would call the prospect's reasons for doing business.

Last but not least, the prospects outline will include several different outcomes at which they and/or the prospect may arrive at the end of the call. In this way, there can be no mutual mystification about what will happen next, follow-up steps and/or a mutual agreement to end the process and close the prospects file.

Sales calls rarely go as imagined. After all, the prospect isn't working from a script … and neither should you. If you've thoroughly internalized your information, you won't have to worry about delivering it in a structured manner. You can direct your attention to listening intently to your prospect and let the information flow based on the prospect's interest and reactions.

Bob Bolak, president of Sandler Training in Boulder, can be reached at 303-376-6165 or bbolak@sandler.com.