“Control the sales situation” is a sales rule chiseled in stone. There is however, a danger in projecting that intention. If the customer senses you have that mantra in your head, the sales situation is over.

Never be obvious in your intent to close the sale. You don't want it to feel like a contest, even if it is. This is especially true if the customer has spent any time in sales and is now sitting on the other side of the desk. Experienced, successful sales professionals project an easy confidence about themselves. They are tuned in to presenting themselves in a personable, friendly manner. Most of the salespeople I dealt with during my nine years as the director of purchasing for a large electrical contractor in St. Louis were like that. They were true professionals. Some fell short, but were developing their sales skills. There were times when salespeople would say or do things that made me cringe. I'm sure other buyers would feel the same. Following are a few dos and don'ts for your next sales call.

Be witty, or humorous, but don't make it a vaudeville act

Everybody enjoys being around people who have a great sense of humor and make you laugh or smile. But too often a sales representative will try to break the ice by rolling out their own vaudeville routine. The worst stand-up routines included racist, sexist, political or religious jokes. Sales pros should steer clear of canned jokes. They don't make you look witty — they show you can remember a joke. It reinforces the “Willy Lohman” Death of a Salesman stereotype and could easily offend the customer. Don't try to be a stand-up comedian. Be a sales professional who has a good sense of humor.

Don't make golf your sales handicap

If your customer is a golfer, he may enjoy a short golf comment or two. He may even enjoy hearing how you scored on your last game, but don't give him a verbal replay of each shot over 18 holes. He doesn't have that much time or interest.

Speak up!

I once read a sales tip that you should speak softly so the customer leans in to hear every word. I don't agree with it. It's not a good sales tip, it's actually a good example of why manipulative sales tactics don't work. When I read the tip to Tom Tokos, my purchasing manager, he had a hearty laugh. You see, Tom wore hearing aids in each ear. If a sales representative didn't speak up clearly and distinctly, he not only wouldn't get the order, he probably wouldn't get another appointment with Tom. Common sense should tell you that speaking clearly and loud enough to be heard is an essential habit for any salesperson.

It takes two to have a conversation

One of my most amusing sales calls involved a salesman I hadn't previously met. He called for an appointment, assuring me that he needed only 15 minutes. When he arrived, he shook my hand and gave me his card along with a full-color brochure. He sat down in front of me and began reading from the brochure. I was curious how long he would continue to simply read the brochure out loud to me. I watched the clock tick by, minute after long, tortured minute, until he had read the brochure for almost 15 minutes.

I probably should have stopped him, simply in the interest of productivity, but as a former sales professional, I was fascinated by this exercise in sales futility. Finally, he stopped, stood and told me in a warm and sincere tone that it was a pleasure to meet me and have our “talk.” We shook hands and he left. He hadn't asked a single question, or expressed the slightest interest in learning anything about my company. I can only imagine that his boss paid him on how many sales calls he made in a day, not on results. I never saw him again.

Don't mention the competition during your sales calls

There is a conventional wisdom that salespeople should never knock the competition. Believe it. When I was in sales, I thought it could be done in a subtle, obtuse manner, so the customer would never realize it was being done. I was wrong. It's always obvious. Even when it appeared to be true, it usually came across as petty and ultimately, unnecessary. It usually sounded something like, “Did you hear Acme Supply had to lay off five guys?” It was meant to convey the idea that Acme Supply was on a downhill slide and that I should consider not doing business with them. I always had a lot of respect for salespeople who didn't talk about their competitors. When you talk about your competitors you are unknowingly raising the awareness of that competitor in your customer's mind.

Pretend you don't have competitors. Keep the attention on you and your company. Only talk about what you can do for your customer. After all, that's really all your customer cares about, isn't it?

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.