From the January 2000 issue of Startups

I've learned over the years that the most successful entrepreneurs either have an innate sales ability or just figure it out," says sales and direct marketing expert Alan Test.

If you, like most, fall into the second category, Test says the most important thing to do is "get out there": Talk to a lot of people and determine the need for your product or service.

But keep in mind there's a right and a wrong way to talk to potential customers. "If I walk into a business and say, 'I sell sales training. Do you want any today?' I'm probably not going to get a very positive response," Test explains. "However, if I ask whether they're satisfied with their sales results and ask a lot of questions to determine their problems, needs and desires, I'm going to get a much better response. The problem is, many entrepreneurs are so enamored with their own businesses, fancy brochures and logos, they don't see the importance of [going the extra step]."

What's important, he says, is to ask a lot of questions. Just by talking things out, you can get crucial information. Specifically, you should:

1. Find out what people need. How might they use your product or service? What are they using now?

2. Find out what makes them tick. As Test points out, "People don't buy a red sports car because they need it. They buy it because they want others to react when they see it."

Test recalls a client whose commercial photography business grew because he knew the secret of turning potential clients into repeat business. "When parents came in to have their children's portraits taken, he would ask questions about the grandparents," Test says. "When he found out, for example, they were coming for the holidays, he suggested a family portrait."

3. Find out where your prospects are and go after them. According to Test, the number one reason people fail in selling is they don't make enough sales calls. And he's not just talking telemarketing here. If you've got a product you're trying to sell, get a list of distributors for that type of product. Also, make yourself known in the community. Get active in your local chamber of commerce or rotary club; write and/or pitch articles to sales and marketing magazines.

In short, says Test, "Flood the marketplace."