Get Smart

To move ahead in sales, you've gotta go school, that is.

Chances are, you wouldn't want your doctor to stop attending medical seminars or your car mechanic to confess he hasn't read a repair manual in 15 years. At best, you'd worry they'd become complacent. Yet if you're selling and not continuously trying to educate yourself about selling techniques, you risk the same thing: falling behind on what it takes to stay on top of your business.

By continuing to educate yourself, you can improve your existing skills and learn about the latest sales techniques. As a homebased business owner, however, you face unique obstacles. For one, you more than likely work alone, lacking co-workers with whom to share sales stories or discuss the latest sales seminar or book. Second, time seems more crucial and it becomes difficult to find a spare moment to read, attend classes or listen to tapes. Too many other things compete for your attention--most notably, ensuring that your business stays afloat. Under the circumstances, it's easy to make learning a low priority, since it doesn't lead to an immediate sale.

Still, every minute spent learning more about sales and marketing pays off. The first step in learning is to make time. Set aside one-and-a-half to two hours each week to learn something new about sales. It doesn't matter if you're attending a seminar or reading a trade magazine--just make some type of learning part of your schedule and stick to it.

Here are some other tips:

*Start reading. The easiest way to learn more about sales is by reading. You can begin with trade magazines in your field, many of which have sales columns. You can also choose from a handful of magazines dedicated to sales and marketing. Don't read only about your line of business, however. Read the business sections of local and national newspapers. Many of them have sales, advertising or marketing columns that include ideas to inspire even the smallest of companies.

Check out the seemingly endless parade of sales books, too. Quality and themes vary from the specific to the more motivational. Zig Ziglar's Sell Your Way To The Top (Simon & Schuster) and Tom Hopkins' Guide to Greatness in Sales (Warner Books) are some good examples.

But don't just limit yourself to sales books. How to Become CEO (Little Brown & Co.) by Jeffrey J. Fox has good advice for those in sales or working at home, despite being aimed at corporate employees. Bookstores of all sizes have volumes dedicated to business, sales and motivation.

*Go back to school. Check community and local universities for class schedules. Virtually all colleges have business courses at night, including classes on sales and marketing. Unless you have a background in sales and marketing, choose the most basic course. Although some of the information may seem obvious, at worst, you'll go over the basics of everything you need to know, from direct marketing to filling out call reports. Don't forget to check out the materials and educational opportunities colleges offer online as well.

Sales and marketing courses are usually cheap--sometimes costing as little as $15 per credit--but by signing up and paying for one, you'll probably feel obligated to put in the time. This gives structure to the learning process. Another benefit: You'll meet people with similar interests and build a network of peers.

*Attend a seminar. There's certainly no shortage of sales seminars. You probably receive dozens of offers in the mail; if you don't, they're often listed in trade magazines and local papers. Sales seminars can be helpful, but many are just motivational. You'll probably learn tricks (always use a client's first name, remember birthdays, etc.), but minus a specific syllabus, seminars can turn out to be mere pep rallies with a few good stories thrown in. If you want more from a seminar, make sure you find out exactly what's going to be taught. And keep in mind that some seminars exist primarily to sell the speakers' tapes and books.

*Get on the Net. Small business, homebased business and selling sites are easy to find. Once there, you can chat with your peers or sales professionals. You can also find articles on sales and marketing geared toward homebased businesses. But be warned: You probably won't know who set up these sites or who you're talking with in chat rooms. While others online may offer advice or chat about sales, they could also be looking to sell something. Don't give a lot of information out right away. Unlike book authors, these sources can't be easily checked--but they might be able to easily check you out.

*Try audio tapes. Your commute is now limited to walking from your bedroom to your office, but you can still use tapes every time you're in the car. Many of the most popular sales books are on tapes, as are lectures, motivational speeches and the like. Tapes are usually abridged, so they only hit the highlights of the books--a big plus for busy entrepreneurs.

*Start a group. After a while, you'll meet other homebased business owners in your area. If not, put an ad in a local paper, or a flier in community centers and coffee shops. Like book clubs, meet once a month to discuss your unique sales and marketing challenges.

Bill Kelley is an Arcadia, California, business writer and former editor of Sales and Marketing Management magazine. He's been homebased since 1991.

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