From the January 1998 issue of Startups

About 10 years ago, a sales manager-turned-entrepreneur gave me two pieces of advice for people about to start working at home: Stay away from the refrigerator, and avoid the television. He could have easily added a third: Learn how to use the phone.

You probably think you're pretty good at using a telephone; after all, you've been doing it for years without thinking too much about it. However, as a homebased business owner, cold-calling is so central to your business's success that just being good doesn't cut it. In addition to telephone prospecting, you'll probably be acting as your company's sole telephone voice (that is, if you haven't enlisted a spouse or a friend to be the voice of your "personal assistant"). In fact, as owner, president, CFO and head of marketing, everything you like and dislike about using the telephone is magnified.

Still, regardless of your skill or comfort level, you can improve your phone skills. The first step is recognizing that you could use some additional training. The second is to put that training to work. We can provide the guidance--the rest is up to you.

Get Dialed In

When you set out to improve your phone skills, start with the basics. Write down every fact and figure you hear on the phone as if your business depends on it. It does. Verify your appointments 24 hours in advance. Get used to being put on hold when calling a prospect or customer. Read information back and slow down when you write it.

Be unfailingly polite to every secretary or administrative assistant you talk to. In the past, you may have sidestepped most of these people when calling clients. But not anymore. Just as when you're making a sales call in person, these people are gatekeepers by phone, too. Tick off a secretary who has his or her boss's ear, and you've created a huge barrier for yourself. In fact, when calling a new prospect, you may want to make a preliminary call to the company's general number to get the full name of the secretary--and, of course, check on the potential client's name and title.

Be smart when using this information, however. Don't create an artificial relationship or use first names with people you are cold-calling. Sounding too cheery and familiar with strangers will immediately put people on their guard.

Before picking up the phone, set goals so you know exactly what you want to accomplish. If you have more than one or two objectives, write them down. Acknowledge your client's busy schedule by being polite and sticking to the point.

Unless you're in telemarketing or sell exclusively over the phone, in most cases, your goal should be to set up an in-person appointment. Normally, that's when you're going to make most of your sales and establish long-term relationships with customers.

Regardless of your goals, however, stay away from a script. It's possible to be prepared and yet not have every word memorized as part of a canned presentation. It's hard to imagine that any successful entrepreneur starts every phone call by asking the listener how they feel that evening.

Remain professional and be relaxed when you make calls as well as when you receive them. You probably didn't pounce on every incoming call at your office; don't do it now. Picking up during the first ring sounds too eager, and it doesn't give you time to collect your thoughts, particularly since there's no secretary to identify the caller. You may be in the middle of something; give yourself a few seconds to focus on the call.

Remember to maintain a professional work area and be disciplined when making calls, telemarketing or otherwise. You can't make effective sales calls with one eye on the television or while minding the children or answering the door. When you're making a business phone call, you have to be as psychologically detached from your home as if you had driven to an office.

Schedule your calls. This means two things: First, set aside a time during the day when you're going to concentrate on making calls. Stick to this as much as possible. Not only will it help you focus, but it will force you to make calls you don't want to make but need to. Second, when you can, make phone appointments. Particularly if the call is going to go beyond a few minutes, call a day or so in advance and schedule an appointment to speak with your prospect at a later time, just as you would for a face-to-face meeting. This will give you time to plan the call, and you know you won't be interrupting your prospect or client's schedule.

Scheduling calls also helps eliminate phone tag and ensures that you are the one initiating the call. There's a certain comfort level in being the person making the call rather than receiving it. You're more prepared, and you're taking the action. One note on preparing: Remember your prospect's point of view. Don't just make a list of what you want to accomplish and barrel through. Be empathetic, and show how the phone call can benefit the potential customer.

If you're going to spend a lot of time on the phone, plan breaks. If you don't, you'll fall into a rut, wonder if you're repeating yourself or sound bored. Similarly, don't lose track of the time. When working at home, remember that most of the business world works on a regular schedule. While it's OK to stay late at your home office, don't continue to make calls after 5 p.m.--unless you're speaking to prospects in different time zones.

Listen Up

Becoming a better listener is crucial to making sales over the phone. While it's an important part of sales in general, being an excellent listener is even more critical when you're conversing with customers by phone. Because you're not face to face with a prospect, listening carefully is the only way you can pick up clues about your customer. The first step is to prepare yourself to listen. Don't look at papers on your desk or scan e-mail messages. People can always tell if you're doing something else while talking to them, and at best, they'll find it distracting.

Even though you have goals in mind, concentrate on what the individual is saying. Interrupt as little as possible. Not only is this polite, but it will make the phone call shorter. At the same time, however, give the other person feedback. Simple encouraging remarks, even innocuous phrases, such as "That's interesting," lets the caller know you're paying attention.

Don't be afraid to take notes when talking to a potential client. If warranted, jot down what's being said. If you're unclear about something, don't hesitate to ask the person to clarify his or her point--with you, of course, taking responsibility for any misunderstanding. Taking notes also protects you--not in the legal sense, but in case you ever have to reconstruct the conversation or are just trying to remember what was said.

Forget secret words. Some books and articles on telephone sales claim there are "magic" or "secret" words that are guaranteed to close the sale. They don't really exist or, at best, might work only every once in a while, particularly if you're in a business that doesn't rely on repeat business. It's more important to be relaxed and professional on the phone. The purpose is to let your personality and sales skills shine through, just as they would if you were meeting the client in person. Relying on gimmicks won't help--especially if your goal is to build a long-term relationship.

Keep a phone log. This requires nothing more high-tech than using a spiral bound notebook. Record every call you make and receive, and the date (you can keep a separate notebook for phone calls that require extensive notes). It's not complex, but it will help remind you of when you spoke with clients. Unless the call already requires notes, after you finish, write a one- or two-sentence summation of the conversation.

While call-waiting is fine for the home, you should have two lines for your business--and, ideally, a voice-mail system. Most businesspeople think call-waiting is unprofessional, and it will make your small firm seem even smaller. Two lines are worth the extra cost.

Finally, don't get discouraged. In sales, statistically you're going to fail more often than you succeed. Brush it off, do what it takes to forget about it, and pick up the phone and call again.

Quick Tips

When it comes time to pick up that phone and start making sales calls, don't forget these tips:

*Set specific goals.

*Be patient and unfailingly polite.

*Stay away from scripts.

*Relax.

*Schedule your calls.

*Take notes.

*Plan breaks.

*Be a good listener.

*Forget gimmicks.

*Get two business phone lines.

*Don't give up.

Bill Kelley is a freelance business writer in Arcadia, California.