This is the beginning of Chapter 2 of my book “Preparation Breeds Success.” If you can only learn one thing to use as a sales tool, this is about as good as it gets.

Get to Know Your Customer

A consistent theme throughout this book is: do your homework. This can be applied to all situations, from inquiry response to quoting, to negotiations, to after-sales activities. So, get to know as much as possible about your customer and your contact prior to any engagement, whether it is by phone, e-mail, or face-to-face. Gathering information is not difficult in today’s world.

Research Your Potential Customer

Nobody likes unexpected surprises. Don’t risk finding out something at the in-person meeting that you should have found out beforehand. This includes information about the company, such as how long they have been in business, how they were incorporated, and what principal markets they serve. The same goes for the person or people you may engage with at the company. While not all of this information may be readily available, it is worth the time to try finding out in advance. If it’s not obtainable, then explore during your first in-person contact. Don’t just start with what your company’s capabilities and products are all about. A general question about who won the game last night or some other innocuous comment can open the door to a more fruitful exchange.


Thoroughly peruse the potential customer’s website. Check to see if they have social media pages or blogs and examine them completely. If you know of another supplier, colleague, or individual who has dealt with the customer, pick their brains about tendencies, culture, or any other information. One cautionary note: if you do not know the person who is offering insight too well, take anything said with a grain of salt until you verify it. Information is only valuable if it’s verified and not subjective.


Also, find out as much as possible about the person you are contacting at the client company. This can be done as well through people who may have had contact with him or her, or it can be done subtly with a phone call or e-mail. When doing so, mention something personal about yourself, which can open the door to learning or asking something about the other person’s interests, hobbies, family, and so on. This information can be invaluable with the initial ice breaking.


Know the Company’s DNA

It’s important to know the DNA of the organization you are dealing with. In many cases, this is learned from multiple visits, not usually on an initial contact. Fortunately, the Internet enables us to learn more about an organization than previously possible. Use Google and other search engines. Homework has become easier with the advent of modern technology.

Although technology is a valuable tool, direct communication is still the most crucial part of the sales process. You can learn much by a few phone calls to resources who have had contact with or done business with your prospect. All of these options should be exploited before making initial contact with your potential customer.


Cultural Considerations

Having had the privilege of selling in many different countries, I have become acutely aware of the importance of knowing the business practices and subtleties of the country in which I’m operating. In China for example, exchanging business cards is more than a flip across the table. One must extend his card with two hands and with a slight bow of the head and wait for the card to be accepted in the same manner. The person receiving the card will study it and acknowledge with gravity the presenter’s name and position in the company. Do the same in return when someone is presenting you with this valuable piece of paper. It is a sign of respect that is certainly unfamiliar to those of us in the United States.


One Thing You Shouldn’t Do

Some time ago, I was with one of my field salesman at a new customer in Ohio. On our drive to the appointment, I asked what the salesman knew about the customer. His answer disappointed me: “I guess we’ll find out when we get there.” When we arrived, we were escorted to a conference room with about a dozen people, including engineers and purchasing and management staff. As an icebreaker, my colleague told a joke that, at the very least, could be considered colorful. Really, it was ribald. It turned out the company we were visiting was owned and run by the Amish, and they only employed other Amish. Needless to say, it was a very short visit.


Whether handling a prospect directly or overseeing the efforts of a sales staff, agent, or industrial distributors, it is best to get to know the entire organization you are dealing with. This is simpler if you have complete control and you are dealing with the person at your client company who is involved with the product you are selling. It is more complicated when dealing with an agent, and very tough when trying to get a distributor to gather the desired information. Using third parties to cover more ground can be valuable, but it requires more direct involvement and hand holding than dealing with an employee.


What Is the Customer’s Hierarchy?

The level of difficulty in learning your prospect’s tendencies depends on the effort your point of contact is willing to engage in and how much control you have over the process. If you are the point of contact, then all it requires is your motivation to learn about the customer. If you are supervising the person who is managing the sales process, you can play coach, offer instructions, or even issue an order about what is required. Typically, sales agents have their own interests in mind, as they most likely work on a commission basis. Bad agents do not want to put much effort into the sales process, but if you convince them of the potential results, they can be coerced. Distributors, on the other hand, are committed to providing results for their own company. If they see another opportunity with more likelihood of success, there is not much you can do to turn their focus to your task at hand. A distributor representative does not report to you. He or she already has a boss who dictates priorities. In my experience, it’s not easy to get distributors to do an exploratory mission to learn about a prospect unless there is a foreseeable and tangible benefit to the individual or to their company.