From the March 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

How does an up-and-coming entrepreneur turn a trend-setting business into a fleeting fad? By not getting smart about his or her product.

Stay with me on this. In the December issue of Entrepreneur, Robert McGarvey interviewed futurist Faith Popcorn. He asked her the difference between a trend and a fad. Popcorn replied: "Trends are big and broad. A fad is shorter in duration--a flash in the pan."

Her answer made me stop and think. Yes, it's important to select a business that won't just be a passing fancy, such as a Pet Rock distributorship. But no matter how stable a product becomes in the overall marketplace, it can still "fad out."

How? Consider the coffeehouse business, which seems to be here for the duration. For those of us who indulge, a cappuccino is no longer a luxury, but a daily necessity. I'm a major crab first thing in the morning until I get exactly what I want. And I do know exactly what I want.

I expect the people who sell the coffee to be as knowledgeable as I am. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. It took a long time and many visits to less-than-first-rate espresso joints to become this smart about my favorite drink. In my search for the perfect double cappuccino, I learned the difference between those who set a trend and those who merely follow a fad. The fad followers are the folks who say, "Hey, guys, let's open a java joint. It's the cool thing to do."

When I realize I've been taken advantage of by one of these fadists, I want to shout out: "Look, these drinks don't come cheap--$2.75 and up for a double. So quit using me as a test case."

I have even resorted to giving instructions: "Not a latte. A cappuccino. Which means [I reach over the counter and give the person the right size cup] I'll take two shots of espresso in this 12-ounce cup with just a splash of nonfat foam." By then you'd think they'd get it right. But even the fancy machinery doesn't seem to matter: I still don't get what I ask for. Guess what that means? I'm never going back to that cafe again.

The moral of the story? The best of trends can become a flash-in-the-pan fad in the hand of someone with absolutely no know-how.

In The Know

Knowledge and the ability to put it into practice is the first basic principle of sales success in any business. And this principle doesn't just apply to whoever is designated as the salesperson: Knowledge is a requirement for the whole team.

Don't distract yourself by spending money on creative advertising or dynamite locations until you get the know-how thing down. It may be something as seemingly trivial as the proper way to slice a bagel. But great entrepreneurs have always majored in the minors on their path to the top.

Before you spend another nickel on promotion, here are six ways to "know thy product" that will guarantee you more lifetime customers through word-of-mouth advertising than you can even imagine.

1. "Own" what you sell. By this I mean knowing the products you sell inside and out--knowing them as well as if you had invented them yourself. You can do this by using them, which will help you learn exactly what your products or services can do.

Rich Luisi, the wizard salesperson over at Electrolux cleaning systems, says, "My customers know that I am not bluffing. I know what I'm talking about." Luisi is always coming up with new ways to use his system. Once he mixed a solution of laundry detergent, poured it into the rug shampooer and removed oil stains from his garage floor.

"When you own what you sell, you discover what the systems can do," says Luisi. "That type of knowledge shines through during the demonstration."

2. Show what you know. When David Steitz, CEO of Characters Inc., a multimillion-dollar computer typesetting business in Houston, did a presentation for an advertising agency that needed an annual report, he walked in with an 8-inch high stack of annual reports his company had produced for other satisfied customers and began his presentation.

"The fact that we didn't say anything [about the pile of reports] but just let them sit there was dramatic," says Steitz. "At the end of the presentation, we simply said, `Do you see any reason why you would not use us for your report?' The client looked at the pile, and then at us and said, `No, and we are going to use you.' "

3. Get smart about price and delivery. With the increased complexity of products available in the marketplace today, a salesperson who fumbles through catalogs looking for accurate pricing or delivery dates is fumbling his or her way out of a sale.

Some companies do not offer discounts no matter what quantity is ordered; others offer quantity breakdowns, and that can mean substantial savings. This can make all the difference with a decision maker. Salespeople need to constantly update and educate themselves on pricing and structure changes. The same applies for delivery dates.

4. Know thy competition. Back to our java discussion. The cafe owner and personnel who don't know a cappuccino from a latte should visit a Coffee Beanery or a Starbucks. The people who work there are on-the-money java junkies. They never miss. I say: "Double cappuccino dry." When they hand me a cup, I can tell by the feel that it's perfect because it's so light. Ahhhh, perfection.

Learning from the competition is the way to become more professional and develop better products.

5. Provide customer education. Many companies today consider customer education a vital part of the sales and service effort. When a customer spends a bundle on a product, training helps him or her get maximum value out of the purchase.

Recently, I had a heating system installed in my home that keeps the floors and walls heated via underground plastic piping. Liquid heated to 100 degrees flows throughout the system. The week the final installation took place, my husband and I were given lots of instructions. We were also assigned a customer service representative to help us through any future difficulties. When we originally considered purchasing the system instead of a standard forced-air heating system, it was the knowledge of the salesperson (he owns one, too) and the promise of ongoing education that cemented the deal.

Part of consumer education is discussing a product's future maintenance and care. Prospects want to know what's going to happen after they buy. Today's consumers are very impressed with products that come with a lengthy warranty and require only a minimum of maintenance. Discussing that can be a strong selling point.

Any salesperson or entrepreneur whose product knowledge is extensive and accurate is better able to satisfy customers. This alone is the most important reason for becoming thoroughly familiar with the products you sell. As you become more knowledgeable, you will gain greater self-confidence and enthusiasm as a salesperson, be better able to overcome objections, and develop stronger sales appeals and scripts.

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote addresses worldwide and is the author of seven sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs. Check local bookstores for her latest book, Seven Figure Selling (Berkley Press). Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.