Developing Sales Skills

Overcoming fear of sales, and implementing a sales strategy for your woodworking business - June 18, 1998

Chapter 16 - From the book: The Woodworker's Marketing Guide

by Martin Edic

Fear of selling is probably the number-one problem facing small-business owners. Many people distrust salespeople and assume that those who sell make their living cheating people and gloating over it. Yet, if you look at the chief executives of large companies, you'll find that many of them have sales backgrounds. Big business values sales ability. Without effective salespeople, any large company would be out of business.

As the owner of a small business, you must develop sales skills, too. You will eventually learn through experience, but this is slow and expensive. I've watched woodworkers lose customers and bids because of their inability to recognize signals a customer is sending. Sales training helps you recognize when the customer is asking for something you aren't providing. I'm going to cover some sales basics in this chapter, but I highly recommend reading the books in the Resource section on p. 150 and taking one or more sales-training seminars whenever you can. You'll find out about these seminars in your local newspaper business sections and in the catalogs of local colleges. Also, local business associations like the chamber of commerce sponsor events (i.e., sales-training seminars). The things you learn will be put to use daily as you deal with new clients, as you work with current customers and as you prospect for more work.

Selling Is Problem-Solving
Identify the problems your potential customer is facing, find a solution to them, and you will get the job. Sounds simple, right? In fact, it is a fairly simple concept, but we often get confused during the sales process and lose track of the customer's concerns. That is why professional salespeople have developed a process they go through every time they sell. Knowing the steps involved allows a salesperson who starts to lose control of the sale get back on track. The four steps a professional follows are:

  • Prospecting and meeting the potential customer.

  • Learning about the customer and the customer's needs.

  • Addressing those needs in presentation.

  • Completing the sale and following up.
  • Basic Sales Training
    This whole book is about finding potential sources of business. I've expanded the points above and developed a program called Basic Sales Training. This six-step program teaches people who are not full-time salespeople enough about selling to get the job done. I recommend that you and all your employees become familiar with sales techniques. The program will give your small business an edge on the competition, particularly in a craft like woodworking, where few practitioners have any formal sales training. Basic Sales Training is simple and will introduce you to the art and craft of selling -- anyone can learn it.

    This training program assumes you already have a "lead," or introduction, to a potential customer through one of the various marketing techniques I introduced in this book. You sent out a brochure or left a business card, and one day the phone rings; it is someone interested in having some work done. What do you do?

    Step 1: Meet and Greet
    Meet and Greet is a term used in the car business. It conjures up images of some guy in a polyester suit sticking out a beefy hand for a shake while sizing up your financial situation at a glance. Stereotypes like this have caused a lot of effective salespeople to take a long look at how to make a good first impression. Meet and Greet is often a brief step, but it does set the stage for your future dealings with the customer. In your case, as a woodworker, this contact may happen twice with each potential customer -- once on the phone and once in person. You can ensure that you will make a good impression by taking a few precautions.

    The Phone
    How do you answer the phone? Do you say, "Yeah?" How about "Hello?" Or how about "Woodshop!" I've heard all of these and many more equally terrible answers. These people are telling me, the potential customer, that I am pretty unimportant; in fact, I'm not even worth identifying themselves or their business to. These answers get me thinking. Maybe you're not identifying your business because of collection agencies on your tail. Or maybe I got the wrong place. Maybe this guy on the other end is going to be an ignorant lout and nothing but trouble. I don't want that. In fact, because I'm going to be spending a lot of money and time on this project, maybe I better call somebody who's more professional and dependable.

    This is no exaggeration. Remember, selling is problem-solving and you don't want to sound like a potential problem on the first encounter. The solution is easy. Have a standard way of answering the phone and always use it. Two examples: "Arcadia Woodworks, Max speaking," or "Hello, Arcadia Woodworks. How can I help you?" Make sure everyone uses the same response. Then make sure you don't lose the call, which is easy if it's just you in the shop. If you don't work alone, make sure everyone in the shop knows that all incoming calls are important, and don't put people on hold for more than a few seconds. Take accurate messages and always return calls as soon as you can. Fast responses to calls let customers know they are important.

    So, you're on the phone with Fred Smith, a new customer, and he is impressed by your professional demeanor. He tells you something about his project and asks you a few questions about your experience. You offer to send out a brochure and then make an appointment to meet. Finally, he asks if you've ever worked with an obscure colored plywood from Finland that the architect wants to use. Stop right here.

    If you have never heard of the stuff, don't tell him otherwise. Say you're not familiar with it, but you'll try to get some information about it before the meeting. He says great, and you hang up.

    There are a few important lessons here. One, you made an appointment. Always go for the personal meeting, unless the customer lives far away. In that case, send or fax the information, then call to see if there are any questions. The second lesson is the, "I don't know" answer. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know the answer to a question, but be sure to tell the customer that you'll get more information about the subject. A simple, honest response is, "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you."

    This brings up the price question. Some people will want estimates on the phone. Don't do it. When customers ask for price ranges, tell them you will look over the project and get back to them. If they insist on a price, tell them estimate take time, and it would not be fair to give a figure that was too low or too high. (For more on quotes and estimates, see Chapter 18.) Remember these magic words: I'll get back to you."

    The Meeting.
    You've conveyed a good sense of professionalism on the phone and have set up a meeting. You're now in the next "first-impression" stage. You'll be meeting Fred and his architect, Sheila Jones, at Sheila's studio. You work all morning in the shop, sanding. and then rush to the meeting. You're a little dusty, you've got a crummy pair of pants on, and you're a little disorganized, but hey, you made it, didn't you? You walk in, and the architect is sitting in her suit, her client is here between his meetings at the office, and you look like something the cat dragged in. But it's okay because you're the crafty type, and a little sawdust just says you're for real, right? Wrong.

    If someone drops into your shop, and you're a mess, fine. If you're meeting a customer anywhere, and you have advance notice, clean up your act. This may not mean a suit, but it does mean clean clothes, decent shoes and a clean shop if that's the meeting place. First impressions, remember? If you come across as organized and relatively prosperous, you won't telegraph a negative message to the client.

    In this example you have a double whammy because you are meeting two potential sources of future business: the architect and her client. Your custom woodworking skills are expensive, so in general, you'll be dealing with businesses and individuals that are successful. These affluent people are worth far more to you than a single, small job. They represent a continuous stream of referrals and future business if you treat them right. It is also very likely they have been burned by a contractor in the past or know someone who has. Your professionalism and that good first impression help allay any of the customer's fears of giving money to a stranger and receiving shoddy merchandise, or worse, in return.

    Step 2: Qualifying
    The next step in Basic Sales Training is Qualifying, which is the process of gathering information about the needs and wants of your customer. If this step is done well, the rest will fall easily into place.

    The secret to Qualifying is to listen and take notes, mental or otherwise. Listen for clues from the customer that point to past experiences, financial limitations, style and color preferences, usage and personal dislikes. You must resist the temptation to show your wares and expertise. Only ask enough questions to get the customer talking and guide the conversation back to the project at hand when it veers away. At this stage you are gathering information about the nature of the problem or problems that face the customer. Each problem represents an opportunity because, if you can provide a solution, you come that much closer to the sale. Let's go back to the example.

    Sheila begins by telling you about the project. In this case, it's a built-in audio-visual cabinet in a new residence. She has drawings and everything is spec'd out, including that colored Finnish plywood. Another part of the job calls for a purple dye over mahogany veneer, which, she explains, matches some existing furnishings. During the conversation you make some notes, ask questions and show some samples of the plywood you had delivered from a distributor in New Jersey.

    This is where (and this is a situation based on an actual event) the know-it -all woodworker jumps in and says, "That purple dye is not going to work. Are you sure that's what you want?" A much better approach is to restrain yourself and just listen. Unless you are being paid for your design expertise, don't second-guess the architect. It's her job, and while she may or may not know what she is doing, now is not the time to be negative. If you think that most architects can't possibly know as much as you, the craftsperson, then perhaps you should consider building only your own designs. It is not a joke when people say the customer is always right.

    Back to the meeting. Fred says that he must have this done by a certain date because he is having a party for his business partners. He also says his wife, Susan, must approve the finishes and wants to know if you do installations. Can you do the wiring and the lighting within the unit?

    Before you start responding, let's look at what this qualifying situation has told you. You now know the following:

  • There is a deadline.

  • The client's wife is a decision-maker. Direct your answers to her concerns, too.

  • Many potential customers will see your work if you get the job.

  • The finish is not negotiable, and matching that existing furniture is a key to getting the job. Ask for asample or to see the pieces you must match to head off potential problems. By setting up a meeting at Fred and Susan's house, you accomplish two things. You meet the wife, and the clients have invested more time with you personally. This will predispose them to your bid (if they like you!).

  • The ability to do the installation and the wiring will move you up the list. I call these extra skills profit centers (more about profit centers in Chapter 21).
  • Keep your ears open for clues about what will get you the job. By identifying and addressing the problems you and the customer face, you'll be able to command a higher price and still get the job. Attend meetings with a notepad in hand and make a list of potential problems and concerns involved in the project. This list will ensure that you cover all the bases and will mark you as a professional. Once you've learned as much as possible about the project, you can go on to the next step: Presentation.

    Step 3: Presentation
    Present your expertise to the customer using a feature/benefit approach. Rather than just opening your portfolio and rambling on about what you've done in the past, you should tailor your presentation to the customer's situation. This is relatively easy if you have done a good job qualifying and listening.

    Feature/benefit selling is a very important concept. Understanding the difference between features and benefits can make the sale. Many small businesses place too much emphasis on features and not enough on benefits. Take a good look at your list of marketable products (see Chapter 7) and consider which will benefit this customer most. This list becomes a very important marketing tool. In your sales presentation and marketing materials, you will always emphasize the benefit over the feature. Whenever you mention a feature, you must immediately describe the correlating benefit. Back to the example:

    You might start by showing Fred and Susan photos of AV cabinetry you have done and explain what you learned that applies to their job. Get out the plywood samples and explain that you have found a supplier that will save money on this very expensive material. Also explain that using the plywood will actually save more money because it eliminates some of the finish expense. (This makes the architect who specified it look good, which is good for future business.) Explain how you specialize in matching existing finishes; in fact, this is mentioned in your brochure, along with a description of your expertise as an installer. Give everyone at the meeting a brochure now, even if they have one. Ask Sheila some informed questions about the wiring and the lighting, displaying your knowledge by relating the questions to the particular problems posed by the project being discussed. Mention that you have resources for certain built-in hardware and that you'll fax the specs to her when you get back to the shop. Set up the appointment to see the site for measurements. There are a couple of details you need more information about, and you agree to check them out and get back to Sheila. End of meeting.

    Your presentation was not a listing of your accomplishments or bragging about your expertise. Instead, it addressed the immediate concerns, or problems, of the customers, methodically eliminating or handling those concerns. Try to solve problems during the presentation stage. As you gain more sales experience, you will become more comfortable at presentations. If you are inexperienced, practice with a friend who plays the devil's advocate. If you can get into a good sales-training course, you and others will act out various aspects of the sales process. Role-playing is very valuable for any businessperson.

    Step 4: Trial Close
    In sales, the "close" is the point at which you ask for the job. Amazingly, a lot of businesspeople fail to close the deal because they never ask for the job! They just can't bring themselves to ask. Ironically, experience shows that people want to be guided by the salesperson and need that direct question to make their decision. The Trial Close is a dry run done before you make the final request for a job. There are several reasons for having a trial close.

    First of all, the Trial Close helps you identify any problems that still need to be solved or addressed. Allow the customer to make a conditional answer. For instance, you might say: "If we can iron out the problem with the electrician, when would you like me to get started?" This statement is basically saying that, aside from this problem, would you be willing to hire me? This will bring any other issues out into the open.

    The customer might respond by saying: "Yes, if we can agree on a price and if you can guarantee you'll be finished before our party on the fifth."

    The Trial Close allows you to take the temperature of the situation. You'll find out if the person you've been presenting to is actually the decision-maker, you'll find out about potential competition, and you'll find out what the real priorities are. This step is really another part of the information-gathering process.

    If you address all the customer's problems during both the Presentation and the Trial Close, you'll more than likely get a verbal commitment from the customer.

    Step 5: The Close
    The Close is basically a process of tying up loose ends and getting a written commitment from the customer (a contract) and a down payment. If this is a bidding situation, all of your sales efforts were aimed at cementing your relationship with the person soliciting the bid and using your experience to steer the bid away from a strictly low-ball price situation. An effective sales presentation will build value and more profit into your work. (More about the whole bidding process in Chapter 18.)

    Closing is often portrayed as the final step in the sales process. This is a fundamental mistake. The final step, Follow-Up, will really ensure that everything goes well.

    Step 6: Follow-Up
    After you close on the sale, the work begins, but you have another step to take. You must follow up with the customer. Call and thank Fred and Susan (and Sheila) for the business and update them on their project. Saying thank you in some way really leaves a good impression. However, good follow-up has an even more important function.

    Word of mouth is the mainstay of all small-business marketing. An essential component of word of mouth is referrals and recommendations. Follow-up after the job is completed will lead to referrals if the customer is satisfied. Follow-up during the job will ensure satisfaction. You should be methodical about follow-up. If you say you'll get back to the customer with some information, do it right away. If he wants a bid on something else, have it on his desk the next day. People are used to not having promises kept, so you will look like a real problem-solver if you develop a reputation for getting things done now rather than later. And remember, selling is problem-solving.

    As a last note to the Basic Sales Training, I'd like to mention referrals again. Ask for referrals and ask again every three months. Just call up and say you're calling to say hello, checking to see if everything is holding up and asking to keep you in mind if the customer hears about anyone who needs work done. It's as simple as that, but it will generate a lot of business.

    Martin Edic is a partner in Edic Wells Associates, a marketing and consulting firm specializing in small businesses. He can be reached at:
    Voice: 716 482 3113
    Fax: 716 482 4630

    This excerpt is from The Woodworker's Marketing Guide, courtesy of the Taunton Press.

    To order copies of this book, call 1-800-888-8286. The costs are: $17.95 + $3.00 shipping and handling.