Sunday, August 10, 2003

Business Strategies

To make a sale, listen to client

By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

I know this seems obvious, but if you're going to be in business, sooner or later you have to make sales. Some entrepreneurs, however, view the prospect of having to face an actual customer on an actual sales call with the same sense of fear and loathing as having to face an IRS audit.

Take heart: sales is a craft, not an art. It can be learned. In the 17 years I've been in business, here are a few keys I've found to successful sales:

• Listen: A great salesperson hears what the customer wants - their concerns and priorities. When calling on a customer, it's tempting to want to immediately launch into a sales pitch, especially if you're nervous. But by listening, you can better understand how your product or service meets the customer's needs and desires. If a woman shopping for a car says she likes to drive fast, tell her about performance instead of cup holders. If a man is concerned about safety, focus on the airbags.

• Ask questions: Ask relevant questions to draw them out. "What do you like in your current car?" "What don't you like?" "What features are the most important?"

• Tell them what they get, not what you do: You work with your product or service every day, so it's natural to focus on details of your work. But customers don't want to know the ins-and-outs of your business; they want to know how you meet their needs. There's an old marketing axiom, "sell benefits, not features." So instead of telling a customer, "We have accounts with all the major shipping services," let them know, "If you're stuck at the last minute, we can get a part to you overnight."

• Appreciate the benefits of your product or service: Genuine enthusiasm is contagious. If you truly believe you're offering the customer something worthwhile, you're likely to be an effective salesperson.

• Don't oversell: Some of the worst experiences I've had with companies are when a salesperson makes promises the company won't or can't keep.

• Be honest: Lying is not only unethical and possibly illegal, it's a sure-fire way to lose customers and potential customers. You may even find yourself facing a lawsuit.

• Compare, don't criticize, your competition: Yes, I know, your product or service is so much better than your competitor's, and they're really not very nice people, either. But disparaging your competition makes you appear malicious. Instead, factually - and positively - compare your benefits and value with your competitor.

• Build relationships: One of Rhonda's Rules is "people do business with other people." We all prefer to do business with people we like and trust. Consider the "lifetime value" of a customer, not just a one-time sale. Often, you might want to make a little less profit to begin an ongoing customer relationship. Get to know your customers; find out about their businesses or families. One way small businesses can compete with the big guys is by building strong relationships.

Sales are a natural and necessary part of business life. You don't have to be glib or a naturally-gifted salesperson to be successful. Just go out there and try. It gets easier the more you do it.

Rhonda Abrams is author of "The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies." Visit her Web site at

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