Wind In Your Sales

Your business won't make any headway without stellar sales. Here's all you need to know to grow at a rapid clip.
10 min read

This story appears in the June 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When you're starting a business, no matter what business it is, you're in sales. "But I hate to sell," you groan. You're not alone. Many people are intimidated by selling--either because they're not sure how to proceed or they think they don't have the "right" personality to sell.

Well, anyone can sell--anyone, that is, who learns to connect with the customer, listen to his or her needs and offer the right solutions. In fact, as your business's founder, you're better positioned than anyone else to sell your products and services.

Your Unique Selling Proposition
Before you can begin to sell your product or service to anyone else, you have to sell yourself on it. This is especially important when your product or service is similar to others available. Very few businesses are one-of-a-kind. Just look around: How many clothing retailers, hardware stores, air conditioning installers and electricians are truly unique?

The key to effective selling in this situation is what's called a "unique selling proposition," or USP. Unless you can pinpoint what makes your business unique in a world of homogeneous competitors, you cannot target your sales efforts successfully.

Pinpointing your USP requires some soul-searching and creativity. One way to start is to analyze how other companies use their USPs. If you analyze what other companies say they sell, not just their product or service characteristics, you can learn a great deal about how they distinguish themselves from competitors.

For example, Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, always said he sold hope, not makeup. Some airlines sell friendly service, while others sell on-time service. Neiman Marcus sells luxury; Wal-Mart sells bargains.

Each of these is an example of a company that has found a USP "peg" on which to hang its marketing strategy. A business's USP can be based on product characteristics, price structure, placement strategy (location and distribution) or promotional strategy. These are what marketers call the "four P's" of marketing. They are manipulated to give a business a market position that sets it apart from the competition.

Here's how to uncover your USP and use it to power up your sales:
Put yourself in your customers' shoes. Too often, entrepreneurs fall in love with their products or services and forget that it is the customers' needs, not their own, that they must satisfy. Step back from your daily operations and carefully scrutinize what your customers really want. For example, suppose you own a pizza parlor. Sure, customers come to your restaurant for food. But is food all they want? What could make them come back again and again and ignore your competition? The answer might be quality, convenience, reliability, friendliness, cleanliness, courtesy or customer service.

Remember, price is never the only reason people buy. If your competition is beating you on pricing because they are larger, you have to find another sales feature that addresses customers' needs and then build your sales and promotional efforts around that feature.

Know what motivates your customers' behavior and buying decisions. Effective marketing requires you to be an amateur psychologist. You need to know what drives and motivates customers. Go beyond the traditional customer demographics that most businesses collect to analyze their sales trends, such as age, gender, race, income and geographic location.

Uncover the real reasons customers buy your product instead of a competitor's. As your business grows, you'll be able to ask your best source of information: your customers. You will be surprised how honest people are when you ask them how you can improve your business.

Since your business is just starting out, you won't have a lot of customers to ask yet, so "shop" your competition instead. Many retailers routinely drop into their competitors' stores to see what and how they are selling. If you are really brave, try asking a few of the customers after they leave the premises what they like and dislike about the competitor's products and services.

Once you've gone through this three-step market intelligence process, you need to take the next--and hardest--step: clearing your mind of any preconceived ideas about your product or service and being brutally honest. What features of your business jump out at you as things that set you apart? What can you promote that will make customers want to patronize your business? How can you position your business to highlight your USP?

Do not get discouraged. Successful business ownership is not about having a unique product or service; it's about making your product stand out--even in a market filled with similar items.


Cold Calling
The aspect of selling that strikes the greatest fear in people's hearts is usually cold calling. A good way to make cold calls more appealing is to stop thinking of them as "cold" calls. Try thinking of them as "introductory" calls instead. All you are trying to do is introduce yourself and your business to the prospect.

Remember, phone prospecting takes longer to pay off than other types of marketing efforts, so go into it knowing that you're exploring a new frontier and that it's going to take some time to get results.

Just as with any marketing method, you should never make introductory calls without a plan. First, always use a targeted list of prospects when making your calls. If your product is household cleaning services, why call a random neighborhood where you have no knowledge of income levels, the number of household wage earners or the number of children? If you sell nutritional products to hospitals, why call nurses or doctors when a third-party pharmacy makes all the buying decisions? Get the right list of prospects.

You can obtain information about prospects from the list broker who provides you with the list; if you are working from your house list, you should already have the information. If for some reason you don't, try an introductory call like the following: "We provide mobile pet grooming for dogs and cats. Would that be a service your customers would want to know about, Mr./Ms. Veterinarian?"

Next, determine the best time frames for calling. If you're selling financial services to upper-income CEOs or entrepreneurs, wouldn't it be nice to know when their corporate fiscal years end? Perhaps most of their investment purchases are made two to four weeks prior to that year-end closeout. That's when they know how much extra income needs to be sheltered in a pension plan.

Sometimes timing is your ace in the hole. Granted, follow-up calls throughout the year may make that one important sale possible, but knowing when to instigate the first call is a priceless piece of information.

Finally, plan by preparing a sales script ahead of time. Write down what you are going to say, what responses the prospect is likely to have and how you will reply to them. No, you don't need to follow the script word for word, but if you're nervous about making calls, it helps to have something in front of you. Chances are, after you get beyond the opening sentences, you'll be able to wing it just fine.

Making Sales Presentations

Now that your cold calls and follow-up efforts have paid off, it's time to make a sales presentation. How can you make sure it's a success?

1. Build rapport. Before you start discussing business, build rapport with your prospect. To accomplish this, do some homework. Find out if you have a colleague in common. Has the prospect's company been in the news lately? Is he or she interested in sports? Get a little insight into the company and the individual so you can make the rapport genuine.

2. Ask questions. Don't jump into a canned sales spiel. The most effective way to sell is to ask the prospect questions and see where he or she leads you. (Of course, your questions should be carefully structured to elicit the prospect's needs--ones that your product just happens to be able to fill.)

Your questions should require more than a yes or no response. Ask questions that will reveal the prospect's motivation to purchase, his or her problems and needs, and the prospect's decision-making processes. Don't be afraid to ask a client why he or she feels a certain way. That's how you'll get to understand your customers.

3. Take notes. Don't rely on your memory to remind you of what's important to your prospect. Ask upfront if it's all right for you to take notes during your sales presentation. (Prospects will be flattered.) Write down key points you can refer to later during your presentation.

Be sure to write down objections. This shows your prospect you are truly listening to what he or she is saying. You will also be able to answer objections specifically by showing the customer how he or she will benefit from your product or service. It could be, for instance, by saving money, raising productivity, increasing employee motivation, or increasing the company's name recognition.

4. Learn to listen. Salespeople who do all the talking during a presentation not only bore the prospect, but they also generally lose the sale. A good rule of thumb is to listen 70 percent of the time and talk 30 percent of the time. Don't interrupt. It's tempting to step in and tell the prospect something you think is important. Before you speak, ask yourself if what you're about to say is really necessary.

5. Answer objections with "feel," "felt" and "found." Don't argue when a prospect says "I'm not interested," "I just bought one," or "I don't have time right now." Simply say "I understand how you feel. A lot of my present customers felt the same way. But when they found out how much time they saved by using our product, they were amazed." Then ask for an appointment. Prospects like to hear about other people who have been in a similar situation.

6. Find the "hot button." A customer may have a long list of needs, but there is usually one hot button that will get the person to buy. The key to the hot button is that it is an emotional, not practical, need--a need for recognition, love or reinforcement.

7. Eliminate objections. When a prospect raises an objection, don't immediately jump in with a response. Instead, show empathy by saying "Let's explore your concerns." Ask for more details about the objection. You need to isolate the true objection so you can handle it.

Above all, remember to be relaxed. High anxiety makes prospects nervous. Calm down. Never let them see you sweat.

Want to Boost Sales?
Offer a 100 percent guarantee. This minimizes customer objections and shows you believe in your product or service. Product guarantees should be unconditional, with no hidden clauses like "guaranteed for 30 days." Use guarantees for services, too: "Satisfaction guaranteed. You'll be thrilled with our service, or we'll redo it at our expense."


Sell Benefits, Not Features.
The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is focusing on what their product or service is (the features) rather than what it does (the benefits).

Excerpted from Start Your Own Business: The Only Startup Guide You'll Ever Need (4th Edition) by Rieva Lesonsky and the staff of Entrepreneur magazine

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