People like to buy from experts, which is why top sales professionals invest substantial time and energy in positioning themselves as experts in their field. They don't come across as know-it-alls, but they convey knowledge and expertise in a confident manner. This enhances trust and rapport, allowing the customer to feel good about his buying decision. Here's how you can achieve a position as an expert in the eyes of your prospects and customers.

1. Research the organizations your customers belong to, and join them as an associate or vendor member. Don't just pay dues; attend meetings and participate. This helps you learn about the issues that concern your customers, and regularly puts you in front of them, and prospects, in a non-sales environment. Use these opportunities wisely. Don't try to sell at meetings; use those occasions to learn and build your network. And though it may be a social event, don't relax too much. You may not be on a sales call at that annual picnic or holiday party, but you're still there in a professional capacity. Inappropriate conduct can cost you a degree of respect that you'll find difficult, if not impossible, to recover.

2. Read the same journals, trade publications and other materials that your customers read. You need to know what they know, and understand what they understand, so that you can be of greater value to your customers. Be able to make references to these sources so it's clear you are making an investment in your own expertise.

3. Search the internet for industry information and trends. You'll find breaking news and greater detail online. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use Google Alerts, which is a free service that will send you an e-mail when Google's search engine finds new entries for the terms you want to track. You can track industry terms, company and individual names, or other key words and phrases.

4. Ethically and professionally gather as much information as you can about your competitors and how they do business. Ask people in your organization, not just the sales team, to give you information. Listen to what your customers have to say. Talk to salespeople from other companies who may have called on your competitors. Study your competitors' marketing materials. If possible, secret shop your competitors so you know what sort of experience your own customers are likely to have.

5. Ask salespeople for insight on industry trends, common customer questions, ideas for serving customers better and so on. Tap sales professionals inside and outside your organization, find out what issues are coming up on their calls and how they're dealing with them. And, of course, be willing to share your own knowledge and experiences.

6. Dress one notch above your prospect or customer. This gives you the visual appearance of a solution-based expert who knows the importance of respect and image. If your prospect wears a tie, you should wear a tie and a coat or a comparable suit. If the prospect doesn't wear a tie, you don't either -- but leave your coat on. Of course, this advice needs to be tempered with your knowledge of what's customary in your industry. Don't tread too far outside what is customary, whether it's too casual or too formal. That will create an uneasy feeling on the part of your prospect.

The issue of appearance is not as easy as it used to be because the rules of acceptable business dress have changed dramatically. Generation X and Y workers tend to be more casual than their older counterparts. Also, there are often regional influences on business dress that should be considered and respected. If you're an older person calling on younger prospects or vice versa, get advice from people who are in the demographic you need to relate to. If you're unsure, a conservative approach is usually best. (For more on appearance, see "Salesmanship Lessons From Donald Trump.")

Position yourself as a trusted advisor by working longer, smarter, and harder than your competitors. Your prospects and customers will appreciate the effort, and you'll see the results as you close more sales.

This article has been excerpted from Sales Flashpoint by JK Harris and Richard D. Dickerson, available from Entrepreneurpress.com.