From the January 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

In Hollywood, rumor has it that Robert DeNiro is consistently one of the most prepared actors of our time. On the first day of shooting a film, DeNiro needs no script. His lines have been mastered. While the rest of the cast may fumble through their lines for several days, DeNiro is calmly prepared.

His preparation efforts should remind us that all performance presentations, including those in sales, are not spontaneous events. When the famed courtroom attorney Racehorse Haynes was interviewed by Texas Monthly magazine years ago and asked how he won so many cases, he claimed, "I am not smarter than other attorneys. I am just better researched and prepared."

Since 1991, Bill Palmer Homes Inc. of Austin, Texas, has gone from being a small two-person building company to one of the top building companies in Austin. This is because the owner, Bill Palmer, prepares his sales and product presentations with the help of those he serves.

"[In the beginning,] we went to local real estate agents and asked them how they could help us sell our new homes," says Clark. "They told us how they wanted to be compensated and treated, and we met their requests."

Bill Palmer Homes allows customers to select floor plans from dozens of home designs or to develop their own custom plans. It made this option available after extensive market research told the company today's consumers wanted more control over what they were buying and that they were extremely value-driven. And its research paid off.


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 book, Seven Figure Selling (Berkley Press). Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.

Research First

Whenever possible, successful entrepreneurs research and investigate their prospects prior to the initial meeting with them. Sales trainers call this "pre-approach behavior," and it plays a big part in the eventual consummation of a sale.

For example, if you aim to sell computers to a company, bone up on its technology needs before the first meeting. Gather information about what the company does and how your product can help. Then, at your first appointment, you can insert "scripts" you have prepared. These scripts, which you formulate after gathering information about the company, serve as solutions to some of the company's buying concerns: "I understand the costs of mailing lists and file storage have added thousands of dollars to your company's yearly expenses. This computer can easily store more names and addresses than your current system."

Then, because your detective work has uncovered how slowly their old computer calls up information, you can add: "With this newer, faster computer, you won't spend unnecessary time waiting at a computer screen."

You derived the specific information about the computers during an informational interview two days before. You called the company and explained to the receptionist that you were scheduled to come in for a presentation with a certain department head. Then you asked the name of that person's administrative assistant and were put through to her.

Then you tried this script: "Hi Mary. We don't know each other yet, but I'm due in for an appointment with Mr. Smith this week. I'm preparing some things for this presentation, and your input would save your boss unnecessary time with me. Knowing you are right in the middle of all the action, can you please tell me why your department is shopping for certain types of computers? Where do you think you are losing time in your operation right now?"

Two things work in your favor when you have mastered appropriate pre-approach behavior:

1. You have now recruited a cooperative member to your team--the administrative assistant. Her cooperation is critical if you want to get anywhere with her boss.

2. You are getting very smart, very fast regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the company's current product. You may want to ask the administrative assistant what she likes about their current system, too. There's nothing worse than a hotshot salesperson coming into a company and telling old standbys how wrong they were for purchasing a certain system. Your job is to show them how your service or product can make their current system more efficient.

The important message here is to get smart as fast as you can prior to the first interview with your customer. Here are some guidelines to help you.

  • The company. How long has it been in existence? Who started it? Most companies have an interesting rags-to-riches story about their growth. Find out who the builders and the champions are. Find out if they are still around. Investigate any idiosyncrasies or pet peeves the company may have. Maybe it has a certain dress code that you can determine before showing up looking too casual or overdressed.

What about charities the company supports? Making a kind remark about its contribution to the community shows you pay attention to details. Recently I was speaking in a Midwestern town that is highly endowed by a major Fortune 500 company headquartered there. Community leaders told me the company was highly respected and that some positive remarks from me would impress the town's citizens. Not only did the audience appreciate me complimenting the respected company, but so did the company--it even threw some business my way.

  • The interview. What does the person who is interviewing you do in the company? Be curious about his or her work, and mention some information about his or her contributions to the company during the interview. This person may not be making the final decision about your product, but he or she probably has some input into that decision.
  • The need for your product or service. Is this the first time the company has used your product? What specifically attracted the buyers to your product? Have they used something similar? Who are your competitors? Why is the company changing or updating its systems?
  • Mutual friends. Is this a lead from a mutual friend? This is an excellent rapport builder during the approach, especially if that friend or company has credibility in this customer's eyes. I often get leads from companies or friends who believed in me and pitched me to the customer. The attitude of my prospect was, "Well, if Sam goes on about you, you must be good."
  • Price, price range and budgets. Is cost a factor? Try to find this out beforehand. You must know what you are working with so you don't scare people off when you come back with your bids.
  • The tempo and style of the customer. Do you know whether the buyers are formal or casual? A decorator friend of mine plans her designs around customers' tempos and styles. She is honest, too. Years ago when we worked with her on a home decorating project, we had small children. My friend would say things to me like, "Those kids will have that nice fabric worn out in a month. Look at this one. It's less expensive, looks smart and will serve the purpose."

There are many other preparatory steps you can take before your initial contact with the customer. Only you can fill in those blanks. Your job is to learn how you can make your job easier and get closer to the sale by knowing what you're up against.

Just remember: One well-prepared visit with the customer is not going to seal the deal. If the timing isn't quite right for the company to buy, it will be your ability to hang in there through diligent follow-up calls that will determine your ultimate success. And that follow-up, by the way, is part of your overall preparation.

Contact Source

Bill Palmer Homes Inc., 3215 Steck Ave., #200, Austin, TX 78757, (512)206-0700