Did last year's sales lag behind your projections? Here is some solid advice to get you going in 2008


When Jennifer Younge joined New York City marketing communication and design firm Ross, Culbert & Lavery Inc. in late 2001, the company had a long established method of drumming up sales: It sent prospects a portfolio of work it had done for other clients. The message, says Younge, was simple: "Look what we did for this company; we can do something even better for you." That method worked well when the economy was humming. But in the downturn after Sept. 11, the portfolios lost their magic. In part, Younge says, that's because the approach was essentially passive. "Once a potential client has the package in their hand," she says, "they have no reason to meet with you." The downturn was obviously bad news for the newly hired Younge, not to mention the company's owners and staff. Desperate for a more active way of engaging prospects, Younge began cold calling the professional services firms that were Ross, Culbert & Lavery's target. The problem? "I had no clue what I was doing," Younge says, laughing.


That's where Wendy Weiss came in. Weiss, a New York sales trainer who specializes in what she prefers to describe as "introductory" calling, bills herself as the Queen of Cold Calling. "Most people know how to talk on the phone to friends, but they don't know how to get a perfect stranger's attention on the telephone," she says. "Selling is a very specific communication skill. The more skilled you are, the better your results will be." Younge worked with Weiss to construct a new strategy for contacting potential customers. Younge now uses cold calls to set appointments for introductory meetings, and she's made a crucial mental shift: Rather than assuming that she's interrupting or bothering prospects, Younge acts and speaks as though she's helping them do their jobs better. "Even if they don't hire us, it's still in their best interest to know what's going on in the marketplace and what their competitors are doing," she says. "People pick up on that authority and confidence in my voice and conclude that they want to hear what I have to say." The result?
Today, the majority of the firm's clients come from Younge's cold calls a vast improvement over the send a portfolio and cross your fingers days. More efficient cold calls are only one way to drive sales and boost a company's bottom line. We asked sales experts both consultants and entrepreneurs to tell us what they've learned about how to approach sales. Here's what they told us:

Believe in what you're selling.
Many entrepreneurs worry that they will come across as a stereotypically pushy salesman who won't take no for an answer. But, says Weiss, "If you've got that in your head, you've got to get it out, because it's going to make you ineffective."
Take a cue from Younge and shift your mental picture:
Rather than worrying that you're manipulating people or asking them to do something they don't want to, consider the ways in which your product or service will help them, professionally or personally.
Don't try to be everything to everyone.
Many small business owners are reluctant to define their best customers, or their most profitable markets, for fear of turning away paying customers. But it's difficult to focus your sales effort if you don't define your market. Ardath Albee founded Einsof, a small Minneapolis firm that develops online marketing and sales portals, in 2000. Albee believed she needed to define the industries Einsof served but she was afraid to rule any industries out. As a result, the company's sales effort was haphazard and unfocused. In addition, turnover among the sales staff was high, meaning that Albee had to devote more of her already scarce time to hiring and to managing existing customers' accounts during the transitions. Those results were ironic, considering that the firm aims to help clients improve their own marketing and sales efforts. More recently, Albee has come to realize that the defining factor in choosing her clients should be a potential client's needs, which might not be determined by its industry. A solid prospect, she says, posts annual revenues of $80 million to $100 million, has already worked with a Web developer, has a functional website, and needs a better website that enables two way communication with customers. Of course, defining the market in this fashion makes sales reps' jobs initially a little harder than, say, simply calling all of the health care companies in the Yellow Pages. There is no directory of firms pondering a move from static to interactive websites. Still, the extra work is worth it. "We've closed far more clients so far this year than we have in any other year," Albee says.
Hire sales reps that fit your business model, are confident, and love to sell.
For Albee, defining her best prospects also helped clarify the characteristics required of a successful Einsof sales person: "We need sales reps that can call in at the VP and director of sales level," she says. "They have to be self starters. We need people who can organize themselves, work a network, and get themselves in the door." As Albee's example attests, your sales reps may need skills specific to your industry or your company's mission. Beyond that, successful sales people share self confidence and a positive outlook. "Passion is the single hardest thing to teach," says Bob Waks, president of The Training Center for Sales & Business Development in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania. "If a rep doesn't have that desire to sell, they're unlikely to develop it within your company or in a class."
Develop a sales methodology.
For many companies, this means starting with your goal and working backwards. Let's say you want to produce $1 million in annual sales. You will need to know how much revenue a typical contract brings in. If that typical contract is $50,000, then you need to sign 20 contracts a year, or roughly one every two and a half weeks. You'll also want to build in room for error, in case a client unexpectedly goes under or the economy goes into a tailspin. Let's say you typically have to meet with five qualified prospects in order to get one signed contract. Now you know that you'll need to have 100 meetings (five prospects multiplied by 20 contracts) over the course of the year, or about two a week. And if you usually have to talk to six prospects in order to get one that's qualified, that means you need to have 600 conversations a year, or about 11 a week, in order to keep your pipeline filled. "This is the stuff nobody wants to talk about," says Waks. "But it's the discipline you need."
Don't discount the power of referrals.
"A prospect who comes to you by referral or recommendation from somebody who knows you is infinitely more likely to actually become your customer than someone who comes to you from any other source," says CJ Hayden, whose San Francisco firm, Wings Business Coaching, specializes in sales and marketing strategy. That doesn't mean you have to sit around waiting for referrals to roll in; quite the contrary. Hayden recommends actively building word of mouth about your business by networking with other business people who are likely to know when someone needs your product or service. One of Hayden's clients was able to use this technique as she started a graphic design firm whose primary target was other startups. The designer thought systematically about what other professional services startups need attorneys, printers, accountants, bankers, and so on and set about getting to know competent and reputable people in those categories. She started with the professionals she knew and trusted, then asked friends and colleagues for the names of professionals they would recommend. Ideally, she would ask the professionals to refer clients to her, and if she felt comfortable doing so she would agree to do the same for them. In the end, the exercise helped the designer get her business off the ground and develop her own sales process. "Now my client knew where to network, who to approach, and how to go about prospecting," Hayden says.
Remember the value of the personal touch.
Ralph Roberts, a real estate broker in Warren, Michigan, is the author of Walk Like a Giant, Sell +Like a Madman and 52 Weeks of Sales Success. He's a firm believer in the shotgun approach: Make sure everyone you meet knows what you do, and pass your business cards out everywhere you go. "If you're out to eat, leave a card for the waiter along with the tip and a note that says, ‘Thanks for the food and great service,'" Roberts says, joking that if the meal was lousy, you can just leave the card. Roberts also swears by handwritten thank you notes, which he sends after hearing from a prospect by phone or in person, and he is all for gimmicky tactics like buying a box of old 45s and sending them to clients with a handwritten note that incorporates the title of the song. "It suits my personality," he says. You'll want to come up with your own gimmicks, of course. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn't feel comfortable using a particular sales tactic on a friend, then find another way to approach your clients.
Don't overemphasize closing...
"The sale does not begin at the end, when you're asking for the business," says Hayden. "It begins back at the beginning, when you first interact with the client." Hayden doesn't advocate the "always be closing" style of sales made famous in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross. Instead, she and other experts favor a more consultative approach that involves asking potential clients lots of questions about their needs. "All the focus should be on the client and his or her problem," says Bob Waks. In practice, that means you first need to be sure that you're talking to a person authorized to make a decision about buying your product or service. Your conversations should focus on gaining a thorough understanding of exactly what the potential client's problem is. You also need to determine, fairly early on, whether the prospect's firm has the funds available to invest in a solution. "By the time you get to the point where you would normally make a big presentation, the sale should pretty much be done," Waks says.
...but don't forget to come right out and ask for the sale.
You can forgo the contract signing ceremony with the fancy pens but at some point you do need to get your prospect's commitment to doing business together. "When you think the time has come, you might want to summarize where you are and see if that's where the other person thinks they are, too," says CJ Hayden. Whatever response you get from your prospects is fine, because it gives you information. If they want to see more samples of your work, provide them. If they're ready to do business with you, then go ahead and get to work.

The David and Goliath Approach

Small companies often gaze wistfully at the names on the Fortune 500 list, pondering how great it would be to get a piece of that business. Yet most small companies never even try to fulfill that dream and that's a mistake, according to Jill Konrath, founder of St. Paul, Minnesota based SellingtoBigCompanies.com. That said, getting in the door at a multibillion dollar corporation isn't easy and it may require tactics different from those you use to sell to small firms. Here are a few of Konrath's tips for breaking into the big time:
Be persistent. Getting through to corporate decision makers takes multiple attempts. Most people, says Konrath, give up after five tries, but it's not at all uncommon that you'll need to make contact likely via a combination of phone, e-mail and snail mail 10 or more times before you get a response.
Think small. Don't necessarily start with the corporate purchasing office. "The best way to get into the corporate market is get a client in a department of a division of a business unit of the enterprise," Konrath says. Finding the right person will take some work, but your prospect may have a bit more time to entertain your pitch than her counterpart in the corporate office.
Still, understand that the biggest obstacle to your success is the status quo. "Corporate decision makers are so busy that the mere thought of change is painful," says Konrath. "They will stay with vendors or systems that aren't perfect just so they don't have to change." That means your sales message should spell out in precise and appealing terms the business results you can provide. For example, when pitching her own services to a corporate client, Konrath's message is "I help companies shorten time to revenue on new product introductions" rather than "I do sales training."
Spin your company's size as an asset rather than a liability. This can be as simple as pointing out that your firm's low overhead makes your prices more reasonable. It might also be worth noting that since the contract would represent a significant portion of your annual revenue, you will have the incentive to provide top notch customer service.

Michaela Cavallaro is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Down East, Mainebiz, and the Industry Standard's Grok Newsletter.