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Get Smart

To move ahead in sales, you've gotta go back...to school, that is.
January 1, 1999
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/17088

Chances are, you wouldn't want your doctor to stop attending medical seminars or your car mechanic to confess he hasn't read a repair manual in 15 years. At best, you'd worry they'd become complacent. Yet if you're selling and not continuously trying to educate yourself about selling techniques, you risk the same thing: falling behind on what it takes to stay on top of your business.

By continuing to educate yourself, you can improve your existing skills and learn about the latest sales techniques. As a homebased business owner, however, you face unique obstacles. For one, you more than likely work alone, lacking co-workers with whom to share sales stories or discuss the latest sales seminar or book. Second, time seems more crucial and it becomes difficult to find a spare moment to read, attend classes or listen to tapes. Too many other things compete for your attention--most notably, ensuring that your business stays afloat. Under the circumstances, it's easy to make learning a low priority, since it doesn't lead to an immediate sale.

Still, every minute spent learning more about sales and marketing pays off. The first step in learning is to make time. Set aside one-and-a-half to two hours each week to learn something new about sales. It doesn't matter if you're attending a seminar or reading a trade magazine--just make some type of learning part of your schedule and stick to it.

Here are some other tips:

*Start reading. The easiest way to learn more about sales is by reading. You can begin with trade magazines in your field, many of which have sales columns. You can also choose from a handful of magazines dedicated to sales and marketing. Don't read only about your line of business, however. Read the business sections of local and national newspapers. Many of them have sales, advertising or marketing columns that include ideas to inspire even the smallest of companies.

Check out the seemingly endless parade of sales books, too. Quality and themes vary from the specific to the more motivational. Zig Ziglar's Sell Your Way To The Top (Simon & Schuster) and Tom Hopkins' Guide to Greatness in Sales (Warner Books) are some good examples.

But don't just limit yourself to sales books. How to Become CEO (Little Brown & Co.) by Jeffrey J. Fox has good advice for those in sales or working at home, despite being aimed at corporate employees. Bookstores of all sizes have volumes dedicated to business, sales and motivation.

*Go back to school. Check community and local universities for class schedules. Virtually all colleges have business courses at night, including classes on sales and marketing. Unless you have a background in sales and marketing, choose the most basic course. Although some of the information may seem obvious, at worst, you'll go over the basics of everything you need to know, from direct marketing to filling out call reports. Don't forget to check out the materials and educational opportunities colleges offer online as well.

Sales and marketing courses are usually cheap--sometimes costing as little as $15 per credit--but by signing up and paying for one, you'll probably feel obligated to put in the time. This gives structure to the learning process. Another benefit: You'll meet people with similar interests and build a network of peers.

*Attend a seminar. There's certainly no shortage of sales seminars. You probably receive dozens of offers in the mail; if you don't, they're often listed in trade magazines and local papers. Sales seminars can be helpful, but many are just motivational. You'll probably learn tricks (always use a client's first name, remember birthdays, etc.), but minus a specific syllabus, seminars can turn out to be mere pep rallies with a few good stories thrown in. If you want more from a seminar, make sure you find out exactly what's going to be taught. And keep in mind that some seminars exist primarily to sell the speakers' tapes and books.

*Get on the Net. Small business, homebased business and selling sites are easy to find. Once there, you can chat with your peers or sales professionals. You can also find articles on sales and marketing geared toward homebased businesses. But be warned: You probably won't know who set up these sites or who you're talking with in chat rooms. While others online may offer advice or chat about sales, they could also be looking to sell something. Don't give a lot of information out right away. Unlike book authors, these sources can't be easily checked--but they might be able to easily check you out.

*Try audio tapes. Your commute is now limited to walking from your bedroom to your office, but you can still use tapes every time you're in the car. Many of the most popular sales books are on tapes, as are lectures, motivational speeches and the like. Tapes are usually abridged, so they only hit the highlights of the books--a big plus for busy entrepreneurs.

*Start a group. After a while, you'll meet other homebased business owners in your area. If not, put an ad in a local paper, or a flier in community centers and coffee shops. Like book clubs, meet once a month to discuss your unique sales and marketing challenges.


Bill Kelley is an Arcadia, California, business writer and former editor of Sales and Marketing Management magazine. He's been homebased since 1991.

Push The Envelope

No matter how good your message is, it's useless if you can't get your prospects to open your sales letter. How can you increase the odds your direct mail will be read? Consider the following:

*Be inviting. Instead of a regular business-sized envelope, consider an invitation-sized mailing. It stands out, looks upscale and appears more personal.

*Use windows or not? One choice isn't necessarily better than the other. Window envelopes allow you to "tease" the prospect--they'll be able to see a bit of the offer through it. Recipients also know right away it's a business mailing. To some, however, nonwindow envelopes look a little classier.

*Indicate who you are. Don't print a return address without the company name. Some experts believe this makes the prospect curious, but you may also risk making the person wonder what you have to hide.

*Don't crowd the envelope. Offers can be put on the envelope noting particular sales, close-out items, special discounts and the like. Just don't overdo it--putting too much on the outside of the envelope makes it look busy.

*Avoid gimmicks. Nothing looks shadier than having pseudo-legal-lingo on your envelope, such as "Under federal law, the post office must deliver this to the person to whom this is addressed." Any message on the outside should be straightforward.

*Print or use labels. Unless you're writing a personal note, don't address the envelopes by hand. It simply doesn't look professional.

Press Pass

By Julia Miller

Let's say you want to get the word out about your great new product or service but don't have a lot of money to spend on advertising. Launching a press release campaign is an easy way to target editors and their thousands of readers, suggests Ira S. Kalb, author of Zero Budget Marketing (K&A Press).

According to Kalb, press releases have several advantages, such as generating increased sales and name recognition for your company. Best of all, they cost a fraction of the price of ad space. Most publications print press releases either as a stand-alone write-up or combined with other releases.

The trick, says Kalb, is to write a release that makes the editor believe your product will interest the reader and to submit something that will not involve a lot of rewriting. You can increase your chances of getting published by getting the editors excited about your product or service and by following these steps:

Start with your letterhead.

1. Type "For Immediate Release."

2. Include the name and phone number of the person whom the editor should contact for more information.

3. Create a headline. This is the most important sentence in the entire press release: a bold one-liner that appears above your release and pinpoints your product's key benefit.

4. Write the body of the press release. Keep it short and snappy.

5. Close the press release with the name and address you're using for your sales leads.

Some additional hints: Keep it uncomplicated; a headline like "Bigger Is Smaller" will get your press release instant delivery into editors' wastebaskets. When you use first-class mail, you're telling the editors what you think about your product. When you use bulk mail, you're also telling the editors what you think about your product.

Be sure to go after small regional and specialty publications; spending 50 cents to deliver your message to 30,000 prospects is a real bargain.

Keep In Touch

Second only to the sale itself, the most important part of the selling process is the after-sale service. Do a good job and you're virtually guaranteed repeat business--plus countless recommendations. Here are some hints for top after-sales service techniques:

*Call. A week or two after the sale or delivery, call the customer. Don't try to sell anything else. Rather, thank them, ask whether they have any questions or concerns, and let them know your hours of availability.

*Act. If the customer has a concern, address it immediately. Put in writing what you're going to do and send it to the customer. For example, "I've contacted ABC Software on your behalf. They promised to send a disk to fix the problem by February 15."

*Offer a personal guarantee. Go beyond the manufacturers' guarantee. If something goes wrong that's not covered and you can fix it for a minimal cost or repair it at no charge.

*Be available. Be sure customers have your pager, voice-mail and fax numbers, and e-mail address. Your fax should be on a separate line from your phone and in operation 24 hours a day. Excluding weekends and emergencies, you should get back to customers within 24 hours.

*Back off. Don't smother your customers. Let them know you're available, but if you've called to see whether they liked the product and told them you're available, don't send a follow-up letter stating the same things. Otherwise, you'll quickly mutate from a concerned salesperson into a pest.

Logo Motion

If you think logos aren't important, take a look at Nike, which is considering limiting the use of its famous "swoosh" because it has become too universal and therefore lost some of its unique appeal. While that's probably not a problem your company will soon face, it does illustrate how important choosing the right logo can be. Here's how to select the right one for your homebased business:

*Keep it simple. A Florida environmental engineer left another company to start his own business selling waste treatment products. The logo he chose was simple: heavy black waves of water going through a pipe under the start of the company's name. The waves coming out were thinner and cleaner. Anyone in the business who saw it knew exactly what he did.

*Don't be too trendy. Stay away from a faddish look or design. As with clothing, if you're too "in," you risk quickly being "out." Unlike clothing, you're making a major investment once your logo is printed on stationery, cards, vehicles and the like.

*Make the logo fit your business. You may favor gothic type or other fancy script. If you're a computer consultant, however, it's unlikely to reflect an up-to-date, technologically savvy business. Similarly, if you refurbish cabins, it should be reflected in your logo by using thick, bold lines and rustic images.

*Be careful with colors. Black and white usually works fine, particularly for stationery. However, other colors can be used effectively to represent your business: gold and silver for financial advisors or high-end businesses; green and brown for environmental firms; and red, white and blue to portray, of course, all things American.

*Image is everything. Your logo may be the first contact potential customers have with you. The right typeface, colors and design let people know whether you're an upscale business or a discount operation. Make sure you know exactly what you want to convey.