The Art of the Sale

Selling Wholesale

Chuck Bond, 47, is founder of COKeM International Ltd., a 3-year-old Plymouth, Minnesota, wholesaler of software, video games and accessories. COKeM's sales reached $130 million in 2002, and its client base includes Best Buy, Costco, Disney, Electronic Arts and Microsoft. "Right now, there's a shrinkage of shelf space," says Bond, who's still very active in sales. "You have to fight for your own shelf space or try to create new shelf space."

1. Have a buyer's mind-set. A retail buyer's biggest fear is using limited funds to buy something that does not sell. Bond visits a few store locations before a sales call to see where a retailer puts its money. He also visits its nearest competitors and pulls on this knowledge during his pitch. "Larger retailers aren't going to tell you what they're looking for," Bond says. "You have to tell them 'Here's what you're looking for.'"

2. Customize. Retailers are competitive, and they don't want the same thing as the next retailer. Bond customizes programs as well as product displays for each of his customers. "You have to bring them a margin opportunity or a theme sales opportunity," Bond says.

3. Give them R-E-S-P-E-C-T. A lot of buyers don't want samples and long-winded pitches. Bond's meetings can consist of two minutes in a lobby, and he cuts his sales call short and reschedules when he feels the buyer is too distracted to listen. "Respect their time. Don't have your own agenda," he says. "I've seen too many salespeople fail by only thinking about their own agenda."

Selling Solutions

Garrett Boone, 59, is co-founder of The Container Store, a Dallas-based retailer of shelving and organizational supplies. Store sales are increasing 25 percent per year; sales in 2002 were $296 million, and $335 million is projected for 2003. Boone and co-founder Kip Tindell, 50, remain active in employee training and sales.

1. Don't compete, collaborate. The Container Store's salespeople don't work on commission, so salespeople from different departments will work together to meet the needs of one shopper. Salespeople are empowered to problem-solve. "It's a team approach that amazes customers," Boone says.

2. Engage the customer. The Container Store's salespeople are trained to notice the types of products customers are looking at, or already have in their shopping carts. For example, if a customer is looking at wrapping paper, ask if they are getting ready for a birthday or a wedding. It's a conversation-starter that focuses squarely on the customer and lets the salesperson offer a solution. "We're trying to engage them in a way that says, I can see you need help, and I'm not going to ask a dumb question like 'Do you need help?'"

3. Remember the man in the desert. The Container Store's employees are versed in a philosophy called "the man in the desert": A man crawls through the desert gasping for water and finds a retailer who gives him a drink. Then the man crawls away and finds The Container Store, where he gets water, food and help in finding his family. Translation: Always offer customers a comprehensive solution. If a customer is looking at wrapping paper, she'll probably need a box, a bow, some tissue paper and a greeting card to go with it. Says Boone, "If you sell right, then selling and service are the same thing."

Good As Gold

What does it take to be a rainmaker right now? We surveyed top salespeople working for Entrepreneur's 2003 Hot 100 companies, and they told us their secrets to selling:

"Ensure that your product knowledge doesn't overwhelm the prospect but is applied toward solving the problems the prospect is faced with. If a man is drowning, you wouldn't discuss the relative benefits of your rope."
-Michael Anderson, salesperson for CaseStack Inc., a logistics solutions outsourcing company in Los Angeles

"If you want somebody to bleed, you've got to hemorrhage. Translation: A salesperson must give it all to make a client take notice."
-Cody Lee, director of sales, Ironclad Performance Wear in Los Angeles

"Seek movement on every call you make. You'll save time and increase your sales by pursuing prospects who will commit to moving forward and weeding out those prospects that will not get off the fence."
-Robert Monroe, sales, CaseStack Inc., Los Angeles

"Clients are looking for four things: strong ethics, responsiveness, problem-solving and enthusiasm. Add a strong product or service behind you, and you create a formula for success."
-Scott Fuqua, senior VP in sales for Midwest Diagnostic Management LLC, a radiological and diagnostic referral-management company in Mokena, Illinois

"Always go into a sale with a positive attitude, and be confident you can earn their business. The minute you doubt whether or not you can [sell] the person, you will lose the sale."
-Kaine Smith, owner and partner of Advance Med LLC, a medical staffing firm in Austin, Texas

"Focus on developing a win-win relationship for both the company and the customer. The sales orders will follow."
-Larry Panattoni, sales, Servatron Inc., a Spokane, Washington, company providing manufacturing services to the electronics industry

"Customers are real people, and real people love to have fun. Run with this theory each and every day, and you are destined for success."
-Jason Murphy, owner and partner of Falcon Solutions, an electronics-components supplier in Roswell, Georgia

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog,

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This article was originally published in the August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Art of the Sale.

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