From the April 1997 issue of Startups

For many entrepreneurs, making their first sale is a monumental task. A million questions pop up, such as: How can I make my product stand out from those of my competitors? What types of questions should I ask? How do I handle objections? How should I ask for the order? For the answers to these and other sales challenges, we've asked five nationally known authors of sales books and audio tapes to share their sales secrets. Here are their 25 secrets for sales success.

Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy, president of Brian Tracy International in Solana Beach, California, is the author of several sales books, including Advanced Selling Strategies: The Proven System Practiced by Top Sales People (Simon & Schuster, $14, 800-223-2336). His sales secrets for first-time entrepreneurs are:

1. Sell benefits, not features. The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is in focusing on what their product or service is. Rather, it's what it does that's important, says Tracy. "A health-food product contains nutrients that are good for the body. That's what it is. What the product does is make the customer thinner, more energetic, and able to accomplish more with less sleep," he explains. "Always concentrate on how your product will benefit your customer."

2. Sell to the people most likely to buy. Your best prospects have a keen interest in your product or service and the financial resources to purchase it. They are the ones who will buy most quickly. "If you're selling photo-copy machines, don't try to sell to people who have never bought one before," Tracy suggests. "Sell to those who already have one, or to those you know would be interested in buying one. Show them how yours is superior."

3. Differentiate your product. Why should a customer buy from you and not from your competitor? Tracy suggests coming up with at least three features that will give a customer reason to buy from you. "People don't like to go out of their comfort zone to try something new. So, give them three good reasons to try your product," Tracy explains. "Your product or service, for example, works faster, is less expensive, and has a higher-quality level of ingredients."

4. Get face to face. Spending huge sums of money on print-media advertising or direct mail is one of the least effective ways for first-time entrepreneurs to build up their business. There is no shortcut to the personal approach. Get one-on-one with your customer--if not in person, at least by phone.

5. Focus on the second sale. Nearly 85 percent of all sales are produced by word of mouth. "They're the result of someone telling a friend or associate to buy a product or service because the customer was satisfied," says Tracy. Therefore, concentrate on developing future and referral business with each customer. "Everything you do must be aimed at the second sale. Ask yourself: Will this be such a satisfactory experience that my customer will buy from me again or tell his friends?"

Linda Richardson

You can improve your sales success ratio dramatically by learning as much as you can about your prospect and focusing on his needs, says Linda Richardson, president of The Richardson Company, a leadership- and sales-training company in Philadelphia, and author of Stop Telling, Start Selling: Using Customer Focus Dialogue to Close Sales (McGraw-Hill Inc., $16.95, 800-2-MCGRAW). She offers these secrets for success when making your sales presentation:

1. Build rapport. Before discussing business, build rapport with your prospect. To build rapport, do some homework. Find out if you have a colleague in common. Has the prospect's company been in the news lately? Is he interested in sports? "Get a little insight into the company and the individual so you can make the rapport genuine," says Richardson.

2. Ask a broad range of questions. Ask questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" response, and that deal with more than just costs, price, procedures and the technical aspects of the prospect's business. Most importantly, says Richardson, ask questions that will reveal the prospect's motivation to purchase, his problems and needs, and his decision-making processes. "Don't be afraid to ask a client why he or she feels a certain way," Richardson explains. "That's how you'll get to understand your customers."

3. Probe deeper. If a prospect tells you, "We're looking for cost-savings and efficiency," will you immediately tell him how your product meets his need for cost-savings and efficiency? A really smart sales person won't, says Richardson-he or she will ask more questions and probe deeper: "I understand why that is important. Can you give me a specific example?" Richardson suggests, "Ask for more information so you can better position your product and show you understand the client's needs."

4. Learn to listen. Sales people who do all the talking during a presentation not only bore the prospect, but also generally lose the sale. You should be listening at least 50 percent of the time, notes Richardson. You can improve your listening skills by taking notes, observing your prospect's body language, not jumping to conclusions, and concentrating on what your prospect is saying.

5. Follow up. Write thank-you notes, call the customer after the sale to make sure he or she is satisfied, and maintain a schedule of future communications. "You have to be in front of that client and always show attention and responsiveness," Richardson says. "Follow-up is critical."

Shari Posey

A successful sales presentation starts with careful preparation and ends with guaranteeing customer satisfaction, says Shari Posey, president of Executive Insights, an audio-tape production company in Long Beach, California, specializing in products for entrepreneurs. Her first product is a six-tape set, Start Up & Stay Up: Success Secrets of 17 Entrepreneurs, (Executive Insights, $39.95, 800-SELF CEO). Here are Posey's top five sales strategies:

1. Write out your sales presentation. Making a sales presentation "isn't something you do on the fly," warns Posey. Always use a written presentation. Think about the six major selling points of your product or service. Develop leading questions to probe your customer's reactions and needs to each selling point. "This will help you determine what objections your prospect might have, so you can show how your product or service can meet their needs."

2. Write down objections. Show your prospect you are truly listening to what they are saying by writing down their objections. In this way, you can specifically answer their objections by showing how they will benefit from your product or service. It could be, for instance, by saving money, raising productivity, increasing employee motivation, or increasing their company's name recognition.

3. Offer a first-time incentive. Offer your prospect something significant, so if they do like your product or service, they'll be inclined to make a decision now, rather than wait a few days or put off the decision indefinitely. First-time incentives might include: "10 percent off with your purchase today" or "With today's purchase, you'll receive one free hour of consultation."

4. Offer a 100-percent guarantee. Let your customers know their satisfaction is guaranteed. "A good return policy minimizes customer objections and shows that you believe in your product or service," says Posey. Product guarantees should be unconditional and should not include hidden clauses, like "guaranteed for only 30 days." You can use a guarantee even if you're selling a service: "Satisfaction guaranteed. You'll be thrilled with our service or we'll redo it at our expense."

5. Close with two choices: Rather than ask, "How does this sound?," give your prospect a choice. For example, if you're selling educational books to preschool owners, ask if they want to purchase the book series or the book and tape series together. When they state their choice, write the order. "Your prospect is not likely to stop you," Posey explains, "because mentally they realize they've committed and they've said 'yes.' "

Bob Bly

Want to really impress your prospect and give him sales materials that will make him want to order now? Follow these five important sales secrets from Bob Bly, an independent copywriter and consultant in Dumont, New Jersey, who specializes in business-to-business and direct-response marketing. He is the author of more than 30 books, including The Copywriter's Handbook (Henry Holt & Co., $13.95, 800-288-2131).

1. Target your material toward a specific audience. These days, it's not possible to understand and meet the needs of every potential customer. Show you are a specialist, Bly urges. "You have a selling advantage and come across as believable when your sales materials are tightly targeted to specific audiences," he explains. "Say you offer 'accounting services for advertising agencies,' not just 'accounting services.' "

2. Use testimonials. People might not believe your product or service can do what you say it will. You can overcome this disbelief by having a past or present customer praise you and your company. Testimonials are usually written in the customer's own words, are surrounded by quotation marks, and are attributed to the individual. They can be used in sales letters, brochures and advertisements.

3. Write from the customer's point of view. "Start your copy with something that engages the prospect," Bly suggests, "and what most people are interested in is themselves." If an insurance agency wanted to introduce its new employee health-benefit program for small-business owners, it might be tempted to state the obvious, using the phrase, "Introducing our Guarda-Health Employee Benefit Plan." The agency would get better results if it wrote something that directly interests the prospect: "Are the skyrocketing costs of your insurance premiums threatening to put your company out of business?" As Bly explains, "That's something business owners who provide benefits to their employees can relate to."

4. Use questions. A great way to engage your prospect is to pose questions in the headlines of your sales literature. "Every car-wash owner should know these seven business-success secrets. Do you?" Or, "Why haven't satellite-dish owners been told these facts?"

5. Turn a negative into a positive. If you are new in business and haven't sold many products or signed up many clients for your services, don't despair. You can phrase your situation this way: "Not one widget buyer in a thousand has ever experienced the advantages of this new XYZ widget design."

Barry Farber

What's the best way to identify with your customer? Know his business and ask for his feedback, says Barry J. Farber, president of Farber Training Systems Inc. and Diamond Group in Livingston, New Jersey, and author of several books, including Superstar Sales Secrets (Career Press, $8.99, 800-CAREER-1). Here are five of Farber's top sales secrets:

1. Know your customer's business. Customers expect you to know their business, customers and competition as well as you know your own product or service. Study your customer's industry. Know it's problems and trends. Find out who his biggest competitors are. Some research tools include the company's annual report, trade publications, chamber of commerce directories, and the company's own brochures, newsletters and catalogs.

2. Organize your sales presentation. The basic structure of any sales presentation includes six key points: build rapport with your prospect, introduce the business topic, ask questions to better understand your prospect's needs, summarize your key selling points, and close the sale. "Always begin the process by first visualizing a successful outcome," Farber says.

3. Take notes. Don't rely on your memory to remind you of what's important to your prospect. Ask upfront if it's alright for you to take notes during your sales presentation . Write down key points you can refer to later during your presentation.

4. Answer objections with "feel, felt, found." Don't argue when a prospect says, "I'm not interested", "I just bought one," or "I don't have time right now." Simply say, "I understand how you feel. A lot of my present customers felt the same way. But when they found out how much time they saved by using our product, they were amazed." Then ask for an appointment.

5. Ask for feedback. If you want to improve your sales presentation or your relations with your customers, ask them what you need to do to maintain and increase their business. "Many customers have minor complaints but will never say anything. They just won't buy from you again," Farber says. "If you ask their opinion, they'll be glad to tell you, and to give you the chance to solve the problem."

Author's First Sales Experience

Brian Tracy:

I was 11 years old, selling soap door to door to earn my way to YMCA camp. I'd say, "Hello, my name is Brian Tracy. I'm selling Rosamel beauty soap. Would you like to buy a box?" People would say, "No, don't need it, don't want it, can't afford it," etc. I was very frustrated-until I rephrased my presentation: "I'm selling Rosamel beauty soap, but it's strictly for beautiful women." People who had been completely uninterested would say, "Well, that's not for me. It wouldn't help me. How much is it?" I started selling the soap like hot cakes.

Bob Bly:

I had been asked to speak before groups and had been paid to do so, but I had never personally gone after a speaking engagement. I wanted to do business with a software company which was having an annual convention for its resellers, but the meeting planner was hesitant to book me. He felt that, although my information was good and I knew what I was talking about, I would not be entertaining enough for his group. "Call any or all of the meeting planners on the list of references I gave you," I told him over the phone. "If even one of them says I was not the most entertaining speaker they had within the last few years, I will come and do your event for free." He called all of them, and they confirmed that I gave engaging talks, and I got the job.

Barry Farber:

After college, I sold advertising for a start-up fashion magazine. I was excited and thought it was the greatest product in the world. The magazine was a great place for local high-fashion retailers to attract a local market. I made 145 door-to-door calls in one day, and sold all the advertising space for that issue. I didn't have the skills, knowledge or experience, but I overcame those deficiencies with a tremendous amount of work. I believe 99 percent of a business owner's success is based on his enthusiasm, faith, passion for what he does, and the commitment to work hard to get his name out in the marketplace. Those ingredients can beat any other combination for success.

Linda Richardson:

I had formerly been a teacher and had done corporate training before I started my own company that designs custom-tailored sales-training systems for corporations. The first four months, I had no clients. I told myself to practice what I preached: "The next sales call, I'm not going to mention my product until the meeting is over. I'm going to build rapport and spend time on the client's needs so I can position my product." I braced myself and did it. At the end of the meeting, the man said, "You knocked my socks off. When do we start?" The major difference was in asking for the client's needs, probing deeper and deeper, and really understanding what the organization was about, what they wanted to achieve and why.

Shari Posey:

When I introduced my audio-tape series at a trade show, I negotiated for a larger space so I could have room to conduct informational seminars on my product. I invited several of the entrepreneurs featured on my audio-tape series to speak on how they started their businesses and to answer questions from the audience. These informational sessions, I believe, were one reason I sold so many tapes at the trade show. Giving out information is a strong statement that you care about your prospective customers and are willing to give them something for free, whether or not they buy your product or service. Giving out free information also sets you apart from your competitors, most of whom focus strictly on a heavy-duty sales pitch. When you host an informational session, select a speaker who can make a dynamic presentation, and who can articulate the benefits of your product or service.

Contact Sources

Brian Tracy International, 462 Stevens Ave., #202, Solana Beach, CA 92075, (800) 542-4252.

Executive Insights, P.O. Box 3912, Long Beach, CA 90803, (310) 438-7625.

Farber Training Systems Inc., 66 E. Sherbrooke Pkwy., Livingston, NJ 07039, (201) 535-9400.

Bob Bly, The Center for Technical Communications, 22 E. Quackenbush Ave., Dumont, NJ 07628, (201) 385-1220.

The Richardson Company, 1521 Locust St., #200, Philadelphia, PA 19102, (215) 735-9255.

Former corporate public affairs executive Carla Goodman writes on a wide range of business topics.