A Selling System, part two

Part two 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 second in a five-part series on developing a good client base presents an agenda for the first meeting with a new prospect.

In the first installment of this five-part series, we looked at the process for developing prospects for selling custom work (see A Selling System, Part 1). Now we'll examine what to expect at, and how to prepare for, the first appointment with a potential customer.

By following the guidelines presented in the first article, you will establish that a prospect has a need for the type of work your business offers. The first meeting with the prospective customer is the time to show what makes your company special and one that he would be smart to deal with on a regular basis.

The hallmark of my approach is honesty. There are plenty of salespeople out there who 'walk the walk and talk the talk,' but just about any prospect will admit to having been burned (or at least feeling that way) by one or more of those fast talkers.

I take a somewhat different approach. Just as a great piece of custom work takes time to develop and design, a good business relationship needs to be a custom fit. That doesn't mean you want to waste your prospect's time with pointless nonsense; on the contrary, it can be argued that fast talkers often do so to compensate for a lack of useful information.

Your goal at the first meeting should be to cover all your bases in 10 minutes (and 5 is even better).

For me, this means addressing five basic areas:

I review my company's portfolio.
I discuss what features are included in a typical project.
I go over how I price work.
I discuss my standard terms for payment.
I ask for projects to price immediately - and I do it all in less than 10 minutes.

In the previous article, we said that one mark of a true professional is recognizing the value of time. By offering a concise presentation that anticipates the concerns of your prospect, you'll reinforce your image as one who is considerate of time. You'll also get more appointments when you can promise that you'll only need a few minutes to give your presentation.

As you've probably guessed, the trick to making your presentation clear and concise is careful preparation.

Though you may be tempted to bring a slide projector and arm yourself with fancy (and expensive-to-produce) pamphlets or brochures, strive instead to keep your presentation as simple as possible. In a big sense, particularly with custom work, you are selling your own expertise more than anything else.

So let's start with the portfolio. Mine is a sample collection of color photos of recent work, neatly arranged in a folder with descriptions of each item.

Note that I said 'recent' work. While you might want to show your prospect everything you've ever done, remember: you are trying to (a) keep it brief and (b) leave the prospect feeling you are interested in his needs, not thinking, 'Gee, if I could just get past this guy's ego, maybe we could work together.'

So, Item One in preparing a presentation is putting together a brief portfolio.

Item Two - reviewing typical features of my company's work - includes both tangible and intangible items. As I go over the features of a typical project, I have samples of some of those features handy so the prospect can inspect them. Others I'll simply name. (For instance, I'm partial to using a particular brand of drawer slide. Since the brand is familiar to the vast majority of architects, I don't feel it's necessary to carry an actual sample.)

An example of an item I might bring along is a small piece of Baltic birch plywood, which I happen to favor for drawer boxes. Letting the prospect feel the material and see the density of its construction is easier and, therefore, more concise than any attempt at describing it would ever be. If you do a lot of plastic laminate work, you may want to bring along a sample chain.

Whatever your specialty, listen carefully to the prospect when you schedule the meeting for clues as to the types of projects he does most often. Then bring samples or supplies you prefer to use for that type of work (and be ready to explain the reasons for your preference, if necessary).

The next item, a discussion of how I price my work, may elicit some surprise. On more than one occasion, admitting to fellow tradespeople that I include this step has met with reactions ranging from, 'Oh, that's unique,' to 'You must be nuts.'

However, the reaction I have gotten from prospects is another matter. One architect could hardly believe it after I reviewed my process for pricing work. 'Wow,' he said, 'Other shops I deal with ...the one will just name a price on the spot, and we'll always have at least one fight over money on every project. And the other guy, I think he just throws darts. This is great.'

Like it or not, customers want to know why things cost what they do, and nowhere is this truer than in custom work. So my approach has always been, 'Why fight it?' If taking a minute to show people how I price work will help me get more of it, why not do it?

I explain how I arrive at subtotals for materials and labor, what I tack on for profit (it varies with the size of the project) and how I arrive at the final number. I then assure the prospect that I'll provide a form containing this information for any job at his request. Because retail clients tend to be more leery of why things cost what they do, it's not surprising that the majority of requests for completed forms over the years has come from that segment of my client base.

The real value of sharing your pricing policy is that it reinforces your reputation for dealing directly and honestly with people, and people respond favorably to that.

Item Four in my presentation is a short discussion of my standard contract terms. I recommend letting the prospect know how you expect to be paid, and what is and is not negotiable. If you expect cash in advance, say so. If the prospect objects, explain your reasoning. For example, I may say, 'Insisting on these terms is largely the reason I can take the time to produce the high quality work I do.'

Once you and the prospect have covered the first four items completely, go on to Item Five - ask if there's any work he would like you to take a look at. Often there will be; often there won't. Either way, you'll have a good sense of how the meeting went. And the more you develop and hone your skills, the more often you and your prospect will have positive feelings about the relationship's potential, whether you're heading back to the office with blueprints in hand or not.

When you do get back to your office, use the notebook we talked about in the last article and jot down a few impressions about what you learned in your first meeting with this prospect - things you can concentrate on to help the relationship pay off for both of you. Then, make a note on your calendar when to follow up with him. While it's easy to skip this final step, it's well worth taking a few extra minutes to keep an informal record and adhere to a structure for followup.

In the next installment, we'll look at pricing work and presenting your price.

A checklist for the first client meeting
- Review your company's portfolio
- Describe typical features of your projects
- Review your pricing formula
- Discuss your terms
- Ask for work
- Do all the above in 10 minutes or less!

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.