A Selling System, part one

Part one of five, from Custom Woodworking Business magazine, on developing a customer base through a carefully planned and executed sales approach. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

The first in a five-part series on how to develop and maintain a good client base gives guidelines on prospecting for new customers.

Most custom shops rely on working to certain standards as a way to ensure the quality of their work. In view of this, it's often surprising how seldom many of these same shops take the time to establish and follow standards - a system - for getting and keeping a reliable customer base.

This is the first article of a five-part series, detailing the system I've used and refined over the 10-plus years I've been in business. It begins with a simple question: 'If I were the customer (or potential customer), what would I want to know about this company before I agreed to work with it, and what kind of treatment can I expect when I become a regular customer?'

Keeping this concern uppermost has helped me develop a system which qualifies potential customers quickly and leads to long-term relationships which benefit both myself and my customers.

This first installment looks at prospecting for new customers. Successive articles will cover the first meeting with new prospects; pricing and presenting work proposals; following through on what you promise; and, finally, various concerns that arise throughout the process of developing and maintaining a good client base - the process we call 'SELLING.'

Every interaction with customers - current or prospective - is crucial to your company's success. Still, it is the first several contacts which are most critical in making or breaking the relationship.

With a careful, consistent approach to customer development, you'll become more and more comfortable with approaching new prospects. Eventually, you'll feel not so much like you're selling, but instead that you are providing a valuable service to people who have genuine interest and need for what your company has to offer.

My first recommendation is to reserve an afternoon each week for prospecting. (Full-time salespeople in larger custom shops will be able to devote more time each week to prospecting.)

Because of the nature of my business and what I produce, I tend to start with the phone book. Depending on your specialties, you'll want to explore other sources, too. The important thing is this: whether a lead comes from an outside source (like a referral) or is developed internally (say, from a yellow pages listing), always follow it up until you've either qualified it as a good prospect or are certain that further pursuit would be a waste of time.

To do this efficiently, I take the straightforward approach. First, I list every prospect in a notebook, with name, address and phone number. I reserve about a half-page for each listing, so I'll have space for a few notes. Then I give them a phone call.

If I'm unsure of the name of the owner, I say, 'Hello, my name is Anthony Noel and I own Noel Custom Woodworking. May I have the name of the owner?'

Be sure to note the proper spelling of his or her name, and then ask to speak with him or her. A good receptionist will often ask what the call is in reference to. Again, be straightforward. 'My company makes custom furniture and cabinetry, and I'd like to speak with Mr. Blip about his needs in this area and perhaps set up an appointment.'

When the person you want is on the line, introduce yourself again. You might say, 'Mr. Blip? Good afternoon. I'm Jim Doolittle, and I'm with XYZ Woodworking. We make custom occasional furniture. Does your firm ever have a need for that type of work?'

Asking this may seem strange - after all, you want to meet as many good prospects as possible, right? Exactly. And the key word is 'good.' Now, very early on, is the time to determine if you're barking up the right tree. It's easy to make appointments, but why waste time going to appointments unless there is a reasonable chance that a prospect can use your company's services?

Mr. Blip might answer, 'Do you run unpainted stock moulding in townhouse developments?' You may want to answer, 'Are you, perhaps, hard of hearing?' but instead say, 'Well, no, that's not really the sort of work we're after. We do highly customized furniture exclusively. Do you ever have a need in that area?'

If Blip says, 'No, never,' thank him for his time and move on, noting next to his entry in your prospect book that chances for getting work here were slim or none as of the date you last called.

On the other hand, Blip may say, 'As a matter of fact, we do need some custom pieces now and then,' which is just what you want to hear, and to which you should respond, 'I'd like to set up an appointment to review our company's portfolio and pricing policy with you. Are you available any time during the next week?'

While it would be best for you to schedule the meeting during the time you've set aside specifically for prospecting, be flexible. When you've made the preliminary determination that you and a prospect may be able to work together, it's a good idea to strike while the proverbial iron is hot.

So, if Blip says, 'How about next Tuesday at 10 a.m.?' and it doesn't conflict with anything crucial, make it a date, thank Blip for his time, get directions to his office, and say the time and date once more prior to hanging up. If the appointment is scheduled more than a few days away, you'll want to call again the day of the appointment (or the afternoon before, if it's a 'first-thing-in-the-morning' time) to re-confirm, as a courtesy to the prospect and to assure you'll have someone to meet when you get there. Confirming appointments is also the mark of a professional, someone who recognizes the value of time.

Sometimes, a prospect will ask you to simply mail or fax information. I try to avoid this initially. A personal meeting is far more advantageous for both you and the prospect. Mail or fax information when the prospect seems especially strong and you have no alternative. And always confirm receipt of the materials and ask again for an appointment.

In the next issue, we'll cover the first meeting in detail, including what materials to bring and the agenda to follow during the meeting itself.

A checklist for prospecting
- Reserve an afternoon each week for prospecting.
- Always follow up a lead until you've either qualified it or rejected it as a good prospect.
- For the initial contact, take a straightforward approach.
- Set up an appointment to review your portfolio and pricing policy.
- Reconfirm the appointment.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.