A Process, Not an Event: What to Do on Your First Sales Call

When you’re just starting your sales career, most of your calls will be “first calls” on a customer. But even salespeople well advanced in their careers need to develop the skill of handling first calls well. That’s because you’ll always need to keep filling your sales funnel – building your customer base by getting to know new people and companies.

So imagine you’ve arrived at the customer’s place of business for the first time. Don’t feel pressured by the need to sell or to get an order signed. Your purpose on the first call is “discovery of information” which you’ll use to put together some options you’ll present in the second call.

Remember that this is a process, not an event!

But first, make sure there’s nothing holding you back. Check yourself in the mirror. Hair and clothing neat and tidy? Shoes shined? No embarrassing bits of lunch left on your clothing? Good! Also be sure that you have your business cards and company literature ready. Come armed with a notepad to take notes, as well as an extra pen.

Once you’re inside, take note of as much as you can about the business. Remember, on your first call, you’re there to introduce two things. One is who you are, and the other, who your company is. The conversation should always be on the light side, but listen carefully to what the customer is saying and isn’t saying. Your job is to look for gaps between the situation the customer has now, and what he or she wants it to be.

A Working Example

It was an early spring day when I first visited a company called Dyna International. I drove to the address listed in the state business directory and asked the young woman on the front desk about who was responsible for working with external vendors such as my company.

She directed me to Manny Silva, at Loading Dock 2. I walked over to that loading dock and asked a group of people there where Manny was. When Manny came forward, I saw that he was a well-dressed young man, with a take-charge attitude. When I reached out my hand to greet Manny, it was one of those moments – when you just know that it’s going to turn into a great working relationship.

He gave me a tour of his company’s plant, which turned out to be a large, thriving operation employing 200 people making energy-efficient cooking stoves that were used by McDonald’s, among other foodservice companies. Clearly, this was a prospect I was willing to invest time and effort to earn as a customer.

So, I’d accomplished my objective for a first call – I’d met the prospect, developed an understanding of their needs, and outlined how my company might be of service to them. Perhaps most important, I’d built a level of trust with Manny in order to do business. I went one more step – made an agreement with Manny on the time for our next meeting – the following morning.

After getting back in my car, my next action was to write down some of what I’d learned. Manny was from Portugal and had some problems with English, but he spoke Portuguese and Italian as well. He was well organized, using a numbering system for his documents.  I also wrote that he was a family man, with a two-year-old daughter, that he loved baseball, and that he was a great guy to work with.

I also noted that his company had a need for my company’s services, and that someone from my company’s competition had been in to see him. However — and this is a big “however,” – I had been the only representative to say I could make his job easier. Doing this made me the front-runner for Manny’s business.

On my way home, I put into action my plan for meeting my promise to Manny, about making his job easier. I stopped in at a school supply store and picked up a corkboard, a map of the United States and a box of stick pins of several colors. With these props in hand, I was back at Manny’s door at the agreed-on time of 10:00 the next morning.

I explained to Manny that I was going to show the location of the different vendors, each indicated by a different color of pin. That would help show Manny and his employees, many of whom didn’t speak very much English, which vendor would be best to meet his company’s needs, based on geography.

Manny’s eyes widened as I explained how to use the map. It wasn’t a high-tech solution, and maybe if doing this today I’d use a computer-based solution, but it met Manny’s need.

Sometimes, just paying attention to your customer’s needs, and then providing a simple but effective solution, can help a salesperson get ahead of the competition. That’s what happened with Manny, and this was the start of a long and rewarding friendship and business relationship.

Not all sales calls are like this. But remember, sales is like baseball – the more times at bat, the more opportunities to hit a home run… and this was a grand slam!

What You Can Do

Once away from the office, sit down right away – maybe just drive around the corner – and transfer what’s in your head and your notes while it’s still fresh.

Note what areas you have in common, on which you can build a business relationship. Log everything you can think of that was positive or negative, so you and the customer can be comfortable in your next meeting.

In the story about Manny, four lessons stand out.

1. It’s all about trust. How did I earn Manny’s trust so quickly? By offering to find a way to make his job easier, and then doing so. Instead of putting on the map pins representing just the company I worked for, I showed him where all our competitors were too. That willingness to share information, and to do it accurately and fairly, was a big step in the trust-building process.

2. Listen carefully to the prospect’s needs.

3. Know your own product or service to understand its position relative to the competition.

4. Know your competition as well as you know your own company – I was able to indicate the locations of all my company’s major competitors, so I could provide Manny with the information he would only be able to get from someone who really knew the industry.

First calls are a chance to find new problems to solve and new ways to help companies and people. You’re there to develop some ideas on how they’ll use your product or service. Try to enjoy it and make a connection with your customer!

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