From the August 1998 issue of Startups

Forget the stereotypes you've heard about what it takes to be good in sales. Yes, top sellers have strong egos, they are self-motivated and, in some form or another, they are pretty aggressive. But the real key is they know themselves, at least professionally.

For example, every salesperson can recite the story of his or her greatest sale. The really good salespeople can tell you exactly why they made the sale, how they almost blew it and what obstacles or objections they were forced to overcome. Some of that knowledge comes from experience. But even if you're new to sales and marketing, with a little effort, you can still do a good job of determining your strengths and weaknesses.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to make a list of what tasks you like and don't like to do in sales and marketing. If you like it, it's probably a strength; if you don't, a weakness. For example, if you really hate cold-calling, as most salespeople do, you're probably lousy at it, as most salespeople are.

If you really enjoy servicing the customer--making follow-up calls, solving problems, being someone your customers can lean on--then that's an obvious strength. Many salespeople get a bigger thrill out of landing new accounts. They have to make a point of following up with current customers. But that's not because they don't care about the customer once they make the sale. Rather, their overwhelming job satisfaction comes from closing the sale.

Quickly jot down recent successes and failures. These should come readily to mind, and you don't have to conduct a detailed analysis of plans; a brief description will do. More than likely, there will be a pattern. Perhaps efforts to get publicity haven't worked, or a recent telemarketing campaign didn't pan out. It's important to be very honest here, without beating yourself up for failures.

The key is to ask yourself why. Why did you get the sale? Why didn't you get the sale? Why did a marketing plan flop or succeed? In almost all cases, you should take the blame for the failure. Particularly if you're new to sales and marketing, it's the only way to learn. A salesperson who always blames other people or situations for his or her mistakes is never a salesperson for long.

Making any kind of list is, of course, meaningless if it's not acted on. If an examination of your marketing skills shows you've had little success with direct mail, it doesn't do any good to note it unless you make an effort to improve by taking a course, doing research, talking to peers or trying some other method to mend your ways.

Another effective way to evaluate yourself is to spend 10 or 15 minutes at the end of each day, or maybe an hour or so at the end of the week, examining every contact you had with a customer or prospect. Did you say something inappropriate to a client? Were you a poor listener? Did you stay on the phone too long? If you screwed up, admit it. Maybe you shouldn't have tried to oversell a client. It was a mistake and something you have a tendency to do. Keep that in mind, and move on.

Look for simple answers to problems. For example, your product or service may be great, but your presentation weak. It's your company, and you have a lot invested in it financially and emotionally. That may be getting in the way. Excitement is good, but perhaps you're not emphasizing the benefits of your product or service to customers. It's so great in your mind, you can't understand why others don't want to place an order immediately. Make sure you're giving them specific reasons to buy from you.

Also examine your appearance, particularly if you're new to sales. Salespeople must dress appropriately for clients. Dressing wrong--which is different from dressing poorly--can cost you sales. Don't overdress or be too flashy if you call on tool shops, or too casual if calling on financial institutions. Make certain you dress stylishly, but lean toward the conservative side.

Remember, this shouldn't be just an exercise to find your weaknesses; look for your strengths, too. Perhaps you'll find you're good at writing pitch letters or you've picked up quickly on Internet advertising. Maybe you're better at phone sales than you thought. It's important to know this and play on those strengths.

Finally, you have a built-in advantage over many people in sales and marketing: You automatically love the company and what it has to offer. Your enthusiasm is real, and customers will see that. They know how much the company and its success means to you. Use that. It's an advantage not one of your large competitors can touch.


Bill Kelley is a business writer in Arcadia, California.

Making Peace

No matter what you do for a living, you're in the customer service business. Normally, that's a straightforward job. Answer customers' questions as quickly and thoroughly as possible--and never try to snow someone. However, demonstrating good customer service skills can be a challenge when your customers are upset. Following are some tips to calm angry customers:

  • Listen. Do this above all else. Listen to what the person is saying. Don't get defensive or mad, even if he or she is giving you reason to be. Let the customer air his or her complaint. It may seem overblown, but many times listening alone will do a lot to alleviate the problem. If the customer becomes less frustrated because you paid attention to him or her, he or she will be easier to deal with.
  • Be sincere. There are many courses on customer service; make sure you don't sound like you took one, even if you did. People don't want to hear a number of unenthusiastic or patronizing "yes sirs" or "yes ma'ams" every time they try to explain their problem.
  • Reply with a definite course of action. You don't have to solve the problem right away, but tell the customer what you are going to do. You will fix the product by a certain time; you'll rewrite the copy; you'll find out why something wasn't sent. Even if you don't have an answer, tell the customer how you're going to go about getting one--and when you'll call back with a progress report.
  • Don't get into a shouting match. It doesn't matter how unreasonable the customer is being. Remain calm. Some may be irrational, and you can certainly choose not to do business with those customers in the future. But never act unprofessionally. Remember, if you satisfy an upset customer, not only are you likely to keep the client, but you may end up making him or her one of your best customers.

Star Search

As your business grows, you'll need help with sales. In most cases, the best way to handle this is by hiring a sales representative. Following are some ways to make that task a little easier:

  • Know the difference between dedicated salespeople and representatives. A dedicated salesperson is someone who works for you or your company to sell your products. A representative is someone who represents your line of products or services but is an independent contractor who works for other companies as well. Keep that difference in mind while you're interviewing.
  • Find out what other companies the representative sells for. Know what products and services he or she is selling along with yours, and make sure you're comfortable with them selling those products or services. In addition, make sure they're not overextended.
  • Select an individual who needs very little supervision. Because the person doesn't work directly for you, find a salesperson whom you feel you don't have to monitor closely.
  • Look for enthusiasm for your product. All salespeople should be upbeat. Your representative, however, must be especially enthusiastic about your product or service because he or she will be representing other companies, too.
  • Ask for references, and check his or her background. The biggest mistake sales managers make when hiring someone for any sales position is trusting their gut instincts. Check the individual out thoroughly. Remember, he or she will be representing you and your company.

Reel 'Em In

Advertising is probably the trickiest area for the homebased business owner who has never written a line of copy. Here are some simple tips to help you write the most important part of an ad: the headline.

  • Offer a benefit. Save your customers money, time, energy--something. Readers should know immediately why they should be interested in your product or service.
  • The shorter the better--most of the time. Except in rare cases, keep the headline short to grab prospects' attention. Definitely keep it under 20 words.
  • Make the message simple. Focus on one benefit in the headline (two, at the most). Explain the rest of the benefits in the copy.
  • Know your audience. The headline should be targeted to a specific audience, not so broad and bland that it means nothing to the people you're trying to reach.
  • Avoid using all capital letters. As a rule, they're tougher to read. The same is true with fancy type. Unless it's critical to making a point, don't use strange fonts.
  • Make it provocative. Be certain there's a reason for prospects to keep reading. A headline should grab attention and be so compelling that your prospects will want to read the rest of the ad.