From the June 1998 issue of Startups

Imagine you get a phone call from a male vendor you've never met who asks you, in quick succession, this series of questions: "How long have you been in business? How many employees do you have? What's your budget for my type of equipment? Whom do you buy from now? Will you be the person making the final decision?"

How would you react? If you're a man, you may think this caller is a no-nonsense guy who's short on personality. If you're a woman, chances are you think he's rude and pushy, and you're unlikely to send business his way.

Let's look at the flip side. Say you're meeting for the first time with a female entrepreneur who asks you these questions: "What difficulties did you encounter getting your business started? What challenges might affect your equipment budget? How do you feel about your present supplier? What would you look for in a firm to replace that supplier?"

If you're a woman, you may find this entrepreneur's questions thought-provoking and engaging. But if you're a man, you're likely to feel you're being unduly probed, asked to reveal feelings and emotions to someone you've just met.

The secret to success in every interaction with prospects is to ask effective questions and listen carefully to the answers. It's vital that you evaluate your communication style and learn to ask questions that help you put prospects at ease and gain information about their needs.

I've mentioned the terms "open ended" and "closed ended" questions in a previous column. Closed-ended questions can be answered with "yes," "no" or a simple fact. All the questions the male vendor asked in my first example were closed-ended questions--good conversation starters. Open-ended questions are "thinking, feeling, finding" questions. They reveal the emotions behind the answers and can give you more information about your prospect's state of mind and actual needs. All the questions the female entrepreneur asked were open ended.

In unfamiliar situations, such as a typical sales transaction, men tend to rely on closed-ended questions while women favor open-ended questions. The key to closing more sales is learning to use both types of questions with ease--even under pressure. By asking open-ended questions and listening to the answers, you'll be able to understand prospects' objections and offer solutions to overcome them.

If you ask only closed-ended questions, such as "Who is your current supplier?" you may never find out that supplier is often late on deliveries and requires orders to be placed 10 days in advance. But if you follow the closed-ended question with the open-ended query "What do like best about your current supplier?" your prosect is likely to volunteer that information. Then you can offer a solution that meets his or her needs, such as guaranteed on-time delivery and only 24 hours notice on all orders.

Closed-ended questions are more than good conversation starters. They're great conversation closers, too. Say you're speaking with a prospect and your goal is to set an appointment. Use a specific closed-ended question, such as, "Is Tuesday at 3:00 good for you?" Continue naming dates and times until you have an agreement. If you've asked great questions, listened carefully to the answers and provided solutions that meet your prospect's needs, you'll succeed time after time.

Open And Shut

Here's an easy exercise to get you thinking about ways to use both open- and closed-ended questions when talking to your prospects.

  • Draw a vertical line down the center of a piece of paper, separating the page into two columns. Put the heading "closed-ended" above the left column and the heading "open-ended" above the right.
  • On the left, list all the "yes or no" or fact-finding questions you could use with prospects. Make this list as comprehensive as possible. Remember, you need information from your prospects in order to determine if they are qualified and to help you overcome objections and close the sale.
  • In the right-hand column, transform each of the closed-ended questions you listed on the left into one or more open-ended questions. For example: (closed-ended) "Have you considered remodeling your bathroom?" (Open-ended) "What sort of changes would you like to see made to the bathroom?" It's simple once you get the hang of it.

Copy Right

Direct-mail marketing is popular with entrepreneurs nationwide, who rely on it to sell products and generate leads. But with an average 2-percent response rate, the difference between a good package and a great one can mean the difference between spending a fortune and earning one. To increase your response rates, start with a clean, well-qualified list, then use these 11 tips.

1. Use five components: an envelope, a letter, an order form, optional inserts and a return envelope. For a small test, mail 2,500 to 5,000 pieces. Mail to the same list at least three times.

2. "The envelope is your `handshake,' " says Don Dailey, president of Dailey Direct Inc., a Gaithersburg, Maryland, graphic design firm specializing in direct marketing. "A teaser on the envelope is vital."

3. Your letter should explain the benefits of your product or service, followed by the features.

4. Be sure your letter includes a "Johnson box"--the sentence or headline before the salutation that highlights your marketing hook--and a P.S. "The second thing people read in a letter is the P.S.," says Dick Goldsmith, president of the New York City direct-mail production agency The Horah Group. Because your reader will look at the P.S. before the copy of the letter, it should contain some aspect of the offer that makes the recipient want to read on.

5. Make your order form clear, brief and easy to fill out, and include a fax number.

6. Include a toll-free number on every page, because you never know which component your prospect will keep.

7. "Avoid a monochromatic package," warns Dailey. Keep your carrier envelope and letter stock consistent, but for the rest, use different textures, sizes or colors.

8. At the same time, says Dailey, "Don't overdesign. Some of the best packages are simple-looking."

9. "Lack of a single focus is one of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make," says Dailey. If you have a good offer, it should lead the package. If you have a one-of-a-kind product, make that the lead.

10. The more pieces you include, the better, as long as each explains an additional benefit. Include brochures to explain complex services. Use coupons for offers.

11. Testing is vital and should be ongoing. If you're serious about using direct mail to build your business, use it continually.

Contact Sources

Dailey Direct Inc., 11 Watch Hill Pl., Gaithersburg, MD 20878, (301) 977-6017

The Horah Group, (212) 684-1615, http://www.horah.com