In my article in Electrical Wholesaling's August issue, “The other Side of the Desk” (page 42), I described the importance of imagining your role in electrical distribution from the customer's perspective. The tactic was initially seared into my psyche as a Navy trainee when I went through “S.E.R.E.” (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training. Following a simulated P.O.W. compound exercise, our class was critiqued. We were censured for ignoring, rather than reading communist propaganda on a bulletin board. The instructors told us we should have studied it so that we could better understand our captors and “get into their heads.”

After the Navy, I spent 26 years in electrical distribution and nine years as the director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor. I negotiated arrangements that provided my employer with a competitive advantage, but still identified with sales personnel and respected the job they did. Coming from a sales background, it was fascinating to observe both the very best in sales performance and the antics of a few sales personnel who on a few occasions blundered terribly. My experience confirmed that much of today's sales training relies too heavily on manipulative tricks that not only do not work, they establish a weak foundation for a genuine long-term relationship with the customer. They can actually get in the way of real success in sales.

Initial Sales Call

The first sales call is of vital importance. It can go one of three ways — put you on the road to tremendous success for years to come; interest the customer enough that he or she will see you again to further evaluate you and your company; or close the door on you or your company ever having a chance at the customer's business. You obviously want one of the first two. It depends on you. Here are some “first call” rules you may want to keep in mind:

Never come across as manipulative

It's vital that you project yourself as sincere and there to help, rather than being there just to sell. Webster's Dictionary defines “manipulative” this way: “To manage or utilize skillfully; b: To control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means to one's own advantage.” Don't be phony. Let your sincere inclinations to contribute take the lead. Most people who get into sales do so because they are people-oriented. They enjoy social interaction and really want to help. Let that shine through.

Here is an example of a manipulative technique and how it can go horribly wrong. A few years ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story that began, “A Chicago sales rep described how he killed a sale to the company he considered his best prospect: “I wanted to make a really good first impression. So, as I walked into the president's office, I looked for something on the wall or on his desk that I could use for a little opening small talk. “John Madden!” I cried, pointing to an eight-by-ten photograph on his credenza. Every football fan knows the burly football commentator. “How did you get a photograph of yourself with your arm around John Madden?”

The newspaper article said the shocked company president answered slowly, “That's my wife.” Sales trainer Dan Seidman reports that the “Madden” failure was not just a fluke, but the result of using obsolete sales techniques. He says one of the old techniques is to look around a customer's office and try to create an instant but fake rapport. But people always know the difference. The salesperson in this example would have fared much better over time if he had simply asked the customer about his family, his company, his concerns and his needs.

Do your research

The cliché, “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy,” doesn't mean you shouldn't have a plan. In fact, you must have a plan and be well prepared before you ever make first contact with the customer. Research your customer's business by studying everything possible, including their products, services, locations, goals, history, strategies, policies, organization, news accounts, awards and corporate culture.

Before you contact the new customer, know the customer's name and how it's pronounced

This isn't a matter of the customer's ego. If you get their name wrong, it immediately implants a doubt about your ability to get other things right. Know their title and responsibilities.

When using a database or some sort of mailing list to make prospecting calls, be particularly careful to make sure the contact information is accurate and complete

One time, a salesperson who was prospecting for new business had apparently seen my name and abbreviated title, perhaps on a sales lead list. When he contacted me by phone, his first question was, “Are you the “Dir of Pur”? It was impossible to have confidence in someone who couldn't figure out “Dir of Pur” referred to the director of purchasing.

When you call a potential customer, be concise and cheerful, but don't be overly casual or overly familiar

Some sales reps refer to everyone as “buddy,” or “pal,” even when first meeting or speaking to a customer. It could be taken as a sign of disrespect, or communicate a degree of laziness, as though the sales rep couldn't take the time, or effort, to remember a name. Try to get a feel as to whether the customer prefers that you use their first name or be addressed as “Mr. Jones,” “Miss Smith,” or “Mrs. Robinson.” You will usually find that if you refer to a customer as “Mr.,” “Miss,” or “Mrs.,” they will ask you to call them by their first name, but let them establish it.

Do not make your first contact with a customer a voice mail message asking the customer to call you, to set up an appointment

This happened to me, several times a week. Although I was happy to return calls from sales reps I did business with regularly, I never returned a cold call from a new salesperson. I am confident few people would have.

Never leave an angry message on a customer's voice mail

Yes, it actually happened to me once. A distributor salesman I had never met called my office while I was out and left a two-minute, obscenity-filled rant, after learning at a jobsite that our company only did business with preapproved suppliers. The reason I bring up this incident is that I am sure the salesperson studied everything he had to know about sales strategies and tactics. Unfortunately, he didn't think to use common sense or common courtesy.

My friend, former boss and a frequent contributor to this magazine, Bob Finley, always stressed the importance of “wearing well with people.” He influenced the sales and interpersonal styles of many salespeople by reminding us to always keep in mind the long-term relationship with a customer. Regardless of how the first contact with the customer goes, end it on a positive note. Things change. Even if the customer's door may be closed to you today, it could be open tomorrow.

Stay true to any commitment to the length of time of your first call

A salesperson once stopped by my office without an appointment and called from our front desk, asking for just 10 minutes. I was particularly busy, but agreed to see him and the two manufacturers' reps he brought with him. Forty-five minutes later, I was finally able to get them out of my office.

Being punctual doesn't refer to simply arriving in the customer's parking lot on time

Sales personnel would sometimes arrive at my office on time, but would spend 15 to 30 minutes with other personnel before arriving for their appointment. After a certain point, your customer will probably decide that you missed your appointment and go on to other matters.

If your customer is expecting a sales call with you alone, don't show up with an entourage of half a dozen additional people

It isn't that the number of people is intimidating to the customer (an often stated concern), it's simply an unexpected and possibly unwelcome surprise.

Don't tell the customer you want to form a “partnership” on the first call

The idea defies common sense. It's like asking someone to marry you on the first date. A partnership is something that comes with time, trust and confidence in the relationship.

Use common sense if you have the common cold

A salesman once entered my office and held out his hand. After a vigorous handshake, he shook his head telling me he wasn't feeling well. Then, he told me he was “fighting the flu bug.” I much preferred and appreciated sales personnel who would decline to shake hands when they were not feeling well. They exhibited common sense and courtesy. I valued their intelligence, sensitivity and good judgment.

Be careful on how you position your pricing

As a director of purchasing, I was surprised how often a salesperson would proudly state his company “didn't sell on price.” The implication of course was that their company offered superior service and high-quality products. To me, it meant their company had high prices. While it may not be good to base your business strategy on price, it's never a good strategy to base your marketing on not having good prices. You are better off not mentioning price than bragging you don't have competitive pricing.

In closing, remember the words of Henrik Ibsen the Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet, “A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.” Be the type of salesperson you would want to call on you.

Terry Sater has 26 years of experience in electrical distribution sales and management, including six years in outside sales and 20 years as a general sales manager and as a manager at the branch, district and regional level. He also was director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor for nine years and is a past-chairman of the Electrical Board of Missouri and Illinois. His editorial columns have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Investors Business Daily and Chronwatch. Sater can be reached at terry.s8er@yahoo.com.