From the September 2000 issue of Startups

"First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired." These words are from the über-sales movie Glengarry Glen Ross, as the sales force gets chewed out for weak performance. But as an entrepreneur, you don't even get a set of Ginsus when you lose a sale-you're just outta luck.

So what do you do when you get a strong lead on a prospect who needs exactly what you offer? You meet; you present; you bond. You send a proposal that includes competitive pricing and an implementation plan. Next thing you know, you've lost the account to a competitor, perhaps even a more expensive provider. What went wrong? Most likely, it's your sales skills, or lack thereof.

The good news is, poor sales skills are quite a common-and fixable-dilemma. Through self-teaching, sales courses, and trial and error, many entrepreneurs are able to take their sales from tepid to terrific. I talked to Azriela Jaffe, author of Starting from No: 10 Strategies to Overcome your Fear of Rejection and Succeed in Business (Dearborn, $17.95, www.isquare.com/crlink.htm), to get some tips for turning around sales malaise.

Kimberly McCall:Many talented business owners find themselves stumped when it comes to sales. They're great at what they do, but they have a hard time converting expertise into clients. What's the first step toward becoming a successful salesperson?

Azriela Jaffe: Respect your limits, and don't force yourself to do the kinds of sales activities that make you shake like a leaf and want to throw up. Sales come in many different packages. One person can make a presentation in front of 400 strangers, as long as he doesn't know anyone in the room. Another can talk one-to-one in a casual networking environment, but public speaking is a nightmare for her. Until you build your self-confidence, select the sales activities that are most natural for you.

McCall:Some people fear being thought of as a "salesperson" because of the title's negative connotations. How can an entrepreneur learn to be a good salesperson without being perceived as too "sales-y"?

Jaffe: Focus on being a person of service to another. If you don't truly believe that you are of service and your focus is entirely on "making the sale," you'll chase your prospects away. Like a dog can smell fear, a prospect can smell desperation or embarrassment. You've got to believe that the customer will be lucky to buy from you!

McCall:What are the common traits of top salespeople?

Jaffe: They are outstanding listeners, they don't personalize rejection, they keep at it for a long time (even when it hurts), they genuinely care about their customers, and they believe in their products.

McCall:How can you pull yourself out of a sales slump?

Jaffe: Inactivity leads to desperation, which leads to further withdrawal and fear, thus escalating the cycle. The key is to take action toward progress in your business every day, whether or not you are in the mood. You might change the approach or stop doing a certain kind of sales activity for a while, but don't allow yourself to stop working on the business altogether. At the very least, get out of the house and volunteer your services in the community. Networking can lead to sales, even when you aren't looking for them. Also, it's not always a bad idea to get a part-time or full-time job when you've hit a slump. Sometimes, when you remove the financial panic, you become much more effective in your business. The job doesn't have to be forever-just to get you over the hump.

McCall:What about overcoming the fear that comes along with making a sales call or presentation?

Jaffe: Take a look at what you are really afraid of. You aren't afraid of rejection-there's no such thing. What can rejection do to you? You are afraid of the consequences you are telling yourself will occur if you don't make the sale. Is it financial disaster? Or making a fool of yourself? Or letting someone down? Examine the catastrophic thinking that is leading to your panic. Set your mind straight-it's rarely going to turn out as bad as you think.

McCall:Do you have any examples of a businessperson who overcame his or her fear to become a stellar salesperson?

Jaffe: A guy contacted me for coaching because he was stuck in his business. He couldn't pick up the phone because he was terrified of making cold calls or contacting anyone he knew. He couldn't handle his fear of humiliation. This guy had no fear of public speaking. I suggested that he start giving public seminars instead and that he stop trying to sell one-to-one. Voila! He had no trouble doing that, his self-confidence rose, and he started making sales by referrals that came to him after the seminars.

McCall:Business owners are used to turning to accountants, lawyers and consultants for advice. When do you know it's time to seek the assistance of a sales coach?

Jaffe: When you've been procrastinating for weeks or months, and no matter how many books you buy or what you tell yourself each morning, your behavior doesn't change, and you aren't making any headway. So if you've hit a sales slump, don't despair; get busy! Hit the books; enroll in a sales course; perfect your pitch. The keys to sales prowess are knowledge, practice and a confident attitude. Whether you sell a product or a service, your bottom line will benefit.

No Experience Required

A former New York City paramedic, 24-year-old Aaron Newman started Waxdigital with his entire life's savings of $15,000 in 1999. A New York City e-solutions provider specializing in complete digital business development, Waxdigital had sales of $1.8 million last year. With a client roster that includes Universal Records, Panasonic and AETNA, it's clear that Newman has learned the sales ropes.

As a young entrepreneur with no previous sales experience, how'd he do it? "I gave myself a quick tutorial in sales and marketing, spending hours at the bookstore, selecting books and industry magazines," says Newman. "I also learned from my father, an art dealer who buys and sells 19th and 20th century European sculptures. He taught me that to be a good salesperson, you have to be trustworthy, and you need to learn to be aggressive without being overbearing. I learned that being knowledgeable about a subject, market or industry makes you a more trustworthy and credible salesperson."

Many entrepreneurs reach a point when they have a "sales epiphany" and realize they need to improve their skills quickly. For Newman, he knew he'd need to be a better salesperson to build a broad range of clientele so his business would have staying power. "I also knew I'd have to sharpen my sales skills in order to pitch investors," adds Newman.

Newman's improved sales skills faced a major test when Waxdigital pitched Universal Records. With newfound confidence after a few successful months selling the company's capabilities, his team met with the new-media coordinator at Universal. They passed the test quite well, winning the business over several other design firms, and ended up constructing the Web site for singer Smokey Robinson, among others.

As Newman's company continues to grow, he looks back on the "old days" and the way he used to sell. "To practice pitching and to build a client base, I went through the Yellow Pages, conquering a portion of each letter each day until I finished the book. One out of 150 worked-it was enough to pay the bills."

Cold-calling soon became a distant memory. "We were growing so fast, we didn't have the manpower to accommodate the work," says Newman. "I had no start-up funds to hire a staff to help me, so I wore many hats. Now that we're making incredible headway, the sweat and tears have been worth it."


Kimberly McCall is the president of McCallMedia & Marketing Inc., a marketing, public relations and business communications agency in Portland, Maine. Contact her at (207) 761-7792 or visit www.marketingangel.com.