After creating her fashion jewelry line KiraKira in 2006, Suzanne Somersall Allis knew her year of design school and dual degree in English and art history hadn't prepared her to run her own business. What she needed was real-world sales experience. So Allis created her own sales apprenticeship, juggling three part-time retail jobs for a year.
"Working at the stores helped me understand how much money people were willing to spend," says Allis, 28. "I started to learn the psychology of people who buy my product."
Today, KiraKira is sold in 15 stores around the country, and last month, Allis opened her first storefront at the Dekalb Market in Brooklyn, N.Y. With the recent addition of a luxury line called Suz Somersall, her sales rose to $400,000 this year from $150,000 in 2010.
For entrepreneurs like Allis, learning the ins and outs of selling is a major, but manageable, challenge. To start boosting your sales skills, consider these 10 tips:
Find your comfort level. Getting comfortable with selling is a key first step for any entrepreneur, says Matthew Schwartz, author of Fundamentals of Sales Management for the Newly Appointed Sales Manager (AMACOM, 2006). To gain the inside knowledge and confidence you need, you could work temporarily for a similar business as Allis did, seek guidance from a mentor or coach, or enroll in a sales class.
Related: How to Conquer Your Sales Fears
Define your target audience. Identifying a specific customer target will help you refine your selling strategy and be more efficient. Let's say your company sells photocopying machines. Is your target audience small retailers? Corporate offices? Schools? "People fail often times because they try to be all things to all people," Schwartz says. "You have to segment your selling efforts."
Study customer buying habits. Once you've identified your audience, pay close attention to customer behavior. For example, if you're selling a high-priced item, you'll observe that customers often take longer to make a decision. That means you should plan to spend more time closing the deal. When Allis sold jewelry similar to her own at the boutiques where she worked, she soon noticed that her prices were too low. "I initially charged a lot less and realized that customers were starting to question the quality of the product," she says.
Fawn over your first customers. When you start out, Schwartz says, you should do everything possible to please your first customers, even if it means not making as much money from sales as you'd like. Those first customers will help create your company's reputation. "You are going to need testimonials," Schwartz says. "It means so much to have those references early on."
Take time to build relationships. One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is failing to build relationships with customers, says Rick Segel, author of Retail Business Kit for Dummies (Wiley, 2001). "The first thing you are selling is yourself. If they don't like you, the sale is not going to happen." Allis makes a point of sending personalized emails to buyers rather than a standardized message. She also devotes plenty of face time to customers by hosting trunk shows and working the counter at her Brooklyn storefront.
Stay on the radar. Once you've established rapport with customers, find ways to stay top-of-mind with them, such as through regular newsletters about your business. When Allis is running a sale or hosting events, she updates her blog, her website's events page and her company's Facebook page. "Facebook drives so much traffic to my site," she says.
Don't make assumptions. Too often, small-business owners sabotage their sales by assuming they know what customers need or are willing to pay, says Keith Rosen, author of Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions (Wiley, 2008). Instead, try to ask customers as many questions as possible to learn what's driving their purchase and what criteria they're using to make their decision.
Establish a daily ritual. It's easy to neglect sales prospecting when you're wearing all the hats in your company. To avoid that pitfall, create a sales routine. That might mean reserving an hour each day for prospecting calls or setting a weekly goal of meeting at least 10 potential clients. "A defined daily routine is non-negotiable," says Rosen.
Showcase your success. Your website is often the first and only contact people will have with your company. Not only should it be clean and professional looking, but it also should help build credibility. Schwartz recommends including testimonials, along with case studies of clients you've worked with. "People love case studies," he says. "They're not buying talk, they are buying [your] actions."
Become an industry expert. Establishing yourself as a leader in your field will strengthen your sales pitch and attract new customers, Rosen says. You can write articles, start a blog or seek media exposure, all of which can build credibility and trust. Earlier this month, for example, Allis talked about jewelry trends on Martha Stewart Living Radio. "People want to see you as someone who understands the industry," Schwartz says.