From the January 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

The start of a new year is the perfect time to review and renew the foundations of selling. Successful salespeople understand that the "fun" comes after the fundamentals; once you have the basics down, then you know the secret to success. Here are six ways to build the strongest foundation possible:

1. Never make assumptions. When I first started in sales, I remember driving by certain small businesses. I assumed that, because of their size, they would be a waste of my time. I was going for the big guns. But the big guns didn't always pan out. When I went back to the smaller businesses, they often turned into my biggest customers. That's why my philosophy is to live by the numbers. The more calls you make, the more sales opportunities you create. Sure, you need to qualify your prospects, but don't get so caught up in qualifying that you lose out on the lessons you can learn from simply making the calls.

2. Reach out after-hours. It's amazing how many presidents and CEOs are at their desks at 6:30 p.m.-with no receptionists to screen your call. Not only is it a great opportunity to speak with the executive directly, he or she will most likely appreciate the fact that you're still working after business hours as well.

3. Know when to walk away. In the country song "The Gambler," Kenny Rogers sings, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em . . ." With selling, you need to know when an account costs you too much in terms of time, effort and money. Too many sales reps spend too much time with people who can't be sold, who won't be sold, or who are just buying price. Carefully measure your return on investment.

4. Expand from the top. Think of it this way: It's much easier to come down a hill than to climb up. We often assume that top decision-makers will be too busy to speak to us. But studies have shown that more than 80 percent of CEOs were in sales at one time or another (and are usually still selling). They know what it takes for someone to approach them directly, and they have great respect for people who have the skills and tenacity to make the call.

5. Focus on the relationship. One of my literary agency clients, a sports agent, traveled across the country just to have a five-minute meeting and shake hands with a potential client. In the end, the player signed the deal because, he said. "Anyone who would fly out here just for a five-minute meeting must think I'm truly important." Truly great salespeople know that all sales are built on relationships, whether it's a one-time transaction or a long-term deal.

6.Make the sale. A sale is not a sale until it's closed. You don't close a sale by blocking someone into a corner and making him or her feel manipulated. When you've built your foundation by asking questions and gathering information, closing is as easy as asking "Why don't we go ahead with this?"

When business is strong and things are going well, it's because your foundation is sturdy. When things go wrong, when you feel the walls crumbling around you, it's time to go back and shore up the foundation once again. This fundamental process of hard work and determination will give you the strongest foundation from which to work.