For this issue, we asked all our columnists to make predictions for the future — whether that be tomorrow, next week or next decade. For my two cents, however, any one wanting a glimpse into the future of at least dealing with savvy consumers should turn to page 170 in the Nov. 17, 1997 issue of Forbes.

The article relates how a New York investment banker found everything he needed to outfit his new home via the Internet. From a $8,600 Viking range for the kitchen to a $37 ax for chopping wood. All just from hopping from Web site to Web site.

Here’s a guy who found everything he needed but the kitchen sink ... no wait, he got that by punching up

Isn’t technology great? I could search the world over all while sitting in my boxer shorts in front of a computer. I emphasize “could” since I only have AOL on my office computer. Casual Fridays may be one thing; Underwear Mondays evidently something else.

To me, however, the most interesting part of the story was that he placed no order directly over the Internet. No Netbot. No e-cash. In most cases, the banker eventually picked up the phone to talk the old-fashioned way — with a person on the other end.

Boil it down, and for all the high-tech frills, we’re still talking about one person talking with another person. Providing information is the common thread, and ultimately the future will always depend on just such a face-to-face exchange. About a million and half years ago, our ancestors began speaking when the base of the skull starting bending and the larynx started dropping. Problem is, in all the centuries since, we’re still struggling to get our points across.

One of the reasons is we talk too much and listen too little. Just ask anybody — they’ll bend your ear all day about why this guy or that “just doesn’t listen to me.” Not listening is the easiest crime to get away with. A few nods here, a few grunts there, top it off with a smile and voilá — it looks just like you’re actually listening.

There are plenty of reasons for faking it. But for my money, I think our readers care too much. I’ve never encountered anybody in my travels that struck me as bored with their jobs. No, I think PM readers may be so eager to jump in with their comments or suggestions that they barely listen to the customer. And so we stumble forward in an otherwise well-intentioned pursuit of really helping the customer.

“We assume too much,” says Kevin Dougherty, who recently led a seminar on customer service on behalf of the Quality Service Contractors group. “Our industry spends a lot of dollars in terms of technical training, but very little on what I call ‘emotional intelligence.”

Emotional Intelligence: In the space of a page and half, I’m not going to be able to vastly improve your EIQ. If you’re interested the QSC will be holding a few more seminars in the months ahead. But if you’re like me — a Man of Action, that is — you don’t want to passively sit back and listen to unrevealing answers any way. Listening is vital, but revealing the truth and having a natural curiosity for that task will naturally increase your listening abilities ten-fold.

So here’s my three-step plan guaranteed to absolutely positively defuse tension, show concern, build trust and chip away at skepticism.

Ask the right questions. SHUT UP. Listen with all your might. Everybody likes to be asked what they think. It’s only natural that when you ask people to discuss their ideas, you automatically make them feel like a VIP. Instead of simply telling people what to do ...

  • I think you should . ... a question suggests alternatives and solutions
  • Have you considered ?

From here on out change the way you approach a conversation. Rather than thinking, “When I talk, people listen,” think “When I listen, people talk.”

In order to get people to talk, there are two types of questions to ask:

Open questions:

  • Invite the respondent to express views.
  • Allow for longer and more in-depth answers.
  • Ask for subjective responses.
  • Open up new possibilities for further discussion.
  • Usually start with how, what or why.

    On the other hand, closed questions:

  • Request specific information or facts.
  • Seek out “needed” data.
  • Ask for objective responses.
  • Involve short answers such as yes or no.
  • Usually start with when, do, where or who.

Both types are door openers to getting people to tell you what’s really going on. However, by and large, open questions will suit you best. In a nutshell, open questions encourage others to talk, and then closed question are used to gather or verify facts or establish an agreement.

For example, let’s say you’re starting off a conversation. Your first goal is to encourage the customer to open up and do most of the talking. When the customer does the talking, then you will be all that better informed to explain how your services and knowledge can fill the customer’s needs. At this point, open questions are key:

  • How satisfied are you with your hot water?
  • What would you like to change if you could?

    Contrast the responses you’d likely get from asking the same questions in a closed format:

  • Are you satisfied with your hot water?
  • Is everything OK right now?

The best kinds of open questions make the customer stop and think. By asking somebody what they like to change rather than if everything is A-OK, you’re allowing them to define the parameters, letting them interpret your question as they wish.

A well-phrased open question does more than establish a connection. It can make you look like a genius! No kidding. Just asking, What if ....? or Why don’t you try ...? portrays you as a problem-solver.

Closed questions, as the name implies, help close a sale. But here’s an interesting way journalists lead off with a type of closed question, called a conditional inquiry — followed quickly by an open question that will definitely get responses. Here’s how a plumber might adapt this journalistic stalwart:

A conditional inquiry basically seeks specific information.

  • How much was your heating bill last winter?

    After you receive an answer, you follow up immediately with an open-ended questions particularly suited to really elicit thoughts.

  • Are you happy about that?

Give it a shot. You’ll never be at a loss for words if the other guy is talking.