From the November 1997 issue of Startups

Will you do just about anything, including sending out hundreds of letters, to avoid making cold calls to prospects? If so, you're not alone. Millions like you have started their own businesses, only to find that the thought of making calls to prospects leaves them paralyzed with anxiety.

As an entrepreneur, the telephone is one of the single most important tools at your command. The key to getting over your hesitation is to stop thinking about your call as a sales pitch, and instead begin practicing "consultative selling." This means uncovering and filling needs in a friendly, supportive way. Before you ever pick up the telephone to contact a prospect, ask yourself, "What does my prospect need from me, and what does my company have to offer that will help this prospect get what he wants?" Then set a goal for your call that will move the prospect closer to a buying decision, such as gaining an appointment or preparing a price quote.

According to what I hear from entrepreneurs across the country, one of the biggest reasons they hesitate to prospect by telephone is they're unsure of what they should say at the outset. I recommend a short, three-part opener, including an introduction of yourself and your company and an opening benefit.

When introducing your company, be sure you can describe what you do in just a short phrase: "This is Sally Jones, president of Jones Public Relations. We provide full-service public relations and event planning to firms here in the Chicago area." Now mention the benefit: "My reason for calling is to tell you about programs we've developed, working with banks like yours, that help build branch traffic." By stating your benefit clearly in your opener, you give the person a good reason to listen further.

Effective telephone contact is made up of two components: Asking good questions and listening carefully to the answers. Ask questions to qualify prospects and overcome objections. There are two types of questions: closed-ended and open-ended.

Closed-ended questions are fact-finders. They can be answered with a fact, a "yes" or a "no." An example of a closed-ended question is: "Who is your present supplier?" Open-ended questions are used to draw someone into a conversation. They reveal the emotion behind the facts. "What do you like best about your present supplier?" is an example of an open-ended question.

Plan in advance the types of questions you'll ask prospects, and record your information in a "call report" for future use. Your call report should include the prospect's contact data, answers to important questions and details on the steps you plan to take.

In the September issue, I told you that finding out someone is using one of your competitors is great news because it indicates he or she is a qualified prospect. You can overcome this common obstacle by convincing the prospect that the benefits of working with you will make the switch worthwhile.

Let's say your business is selling a line of floor coverings. You call a retailer who's happy with his present supplier's pricing, but his supplier doesn't have your two-day delivery policy. You might say to him, "Suppose you could still get the preferred pricing, plus two-day delivery on all your orders. Then you could keep less product in inventory and lower your warehousing costs." You could follow that proposal with a case history, for example, of how another retailer has saved money because of your two-day delivery policy.

After your prospect has answered your questions, it's time to close. You've asked good questions, listened carefully and provided benefit-oriented information. Now ask for what you want. If you can't meet your original goal, state what you will do, such as send the prospect more information and keep in touch. Then be sure to follow through.

Relax and follow these steps. With a little bit of practice, you'll find the telephone to be a powerful ally in building your new business.