Ah, the things you can learn just by shooting the breeze! My fellow breezer was Ken Bottini, pictured at right, a sales rep with the Seattle branch of the Gensco HVAC wholesale supply chain - and so much more. A former schoolteacher with a background in metallurgy, Ken speaks four languages and races cars for charity in his spare time. But it's his sales acumen that is most relevant to us, having spent 35 years working in sales, first in the steel distribution business, then with an HVAC manufacturer and the last 14 years with Gensco. In 2000 he surpassed more than 100 other sales reps in making it to the top of his company's "President's Club," based on volume and gross profits.
As we shot the breeze, Ken talked about various things that made him successful in his job. An item that came up repeatedly was attitude. "Business is more fun when you do it with a smile," he said. "And it's more fun still if you can make the customer smile."
It takes more than a cheerful demeanor, though. As we chatted, Ken began revealing dozens of little things he does that might be good ideas for any sales rep to adopt. Here are some of them.
1 Establish rapport with your company's inside people. "If I have a customer call the office, I need to make sure someone is capable of handling the request. Our inside people are the most important people in the company to me. If they want a favor, like bringing something from another branch, I do it for them. Take them to lunch once in awhile. It's the little things you do for them that count, because you may ask them to do little things for you. Every morning I make sure to say good morning to every guy in the warehouse.
"And if I have a customer who chews out one of my inside people, I tell him I don't appreciate that. I won't let any of my customers mistreat the people who work with me."
2 Respect all of your customers' employees. "To me, the receptionist is the most important person in the company. The next most important is the buyer. The receptionist could be the owner's wife or daughter. Show respect to that person, get to know his or her name, and make sure you always get the name right.
"Same with the shop people. It's important to establish rapport with the shop guys, because they may switch companies or go into business for themselves. Get to know as many people in the shop as you can. The rapport you build is what gains business."
3 Under-promise. "Never over-promise. Be sure you can do what you say you'll do, and never lie. People buy from me because I'm totally honest and reliable. If I say a truck will be there, I work my butt off to make sure it happens. That's the approach you have to use all the time."
4 Never miss an appointment. "Run your watch five minutes fast, and 10 minutes fast in your car. That way you'll never be late for a meeting."
5 Maintain "rigid flexibility." That is, "if the buyer is rigid, you become flexible; if the buyer is wishy-washy, then be firm. It's like shadowboxing," says Bottini.
6 Never drop a price in front of a customer. "If he says, 'I need a 5% discount if you want the order,' tell him if he increases the size of the order by 5%, you'll see what the factory can do. Otherwise, you open a Pandora's Box. If I'm a buyer and I know you'll drop your price every time I ask, that's what I'm going to do. You end up becoming your own competitor. Always say you have to check on it.
"Another thing is, if you avoid talking about price, after awhile the customer will get away from it himself."
7 Stay focused on the business at hand. "Never drive up in front of a customer's office and make a phone call before you go in, or before you leave. Why? Because you're there with one purpose in mind, to do business. If you need to make a phone call, do it around the corner.
"Same thing with shuffling paperwork in your car before you go in. It makes a bad impression if the customer looks out the window and sees you disorganized. Each customer gets my full attention, period."
8 Don't take no for an answer. Here's Bottini's take on this old sales clich¿"When a customer says no 26 times, be prepared for the 27th call. One customer used to always beat me up, and after a couple of years asked why I always came back. My answer was, 'Because I'm learning from you.' I want to hear what the real objections are. The more you hear, the better able you are to solve the problem. Too many sales reps hear no and run away. They're just order takers."
He tells a related anecdote dating back to his days selling steel. He called on one guy over and over without getting any business. One day he stopped by and the receptionist blew him off as usual, to which Ken said, "I'm not here to see Mr. Funk, but to check on a credit problem." She retrieved Mr. Funk who came out asking, "What's this about a credit problem?"
"Well," replied Ken, "we have you set up on a $5,000 line of credit, but since you've never bought anything from us, we'll have to put you on C.O.D., F.O.B. He asked what that meant. I said, 'Cash on delivery, or fetch it back!' He laughed and said I deserved some quotes, and started doing business with me."
9 Make the hard calls first. "Make your first call the hard call, not the soft one. You want the toughest call first, because you won't be motivated and aggressive to finish the day if you start off warm and fuzzy."
10 Let customers vent. "When they have a problem and get angry, thank them for bringing it up, because you never would have known about it. When the problem gets fixed, call him up and let him know."
11 Keep the blues to yourself. "If you're feeling really down, don't make the call. Never let it show that you're having a bad day. If I'm having a bad day, I stop selling and go buy a tie. It makes me feel good about myself." (Not that Ken wears a tie very often - see next item.)
12 Don't overdress. "Wear a suit and walk into a contractor's shop and watch how their eyes look at you. But when you're dressed like an average Joe, they may look at you but they don't pay attention to how you're dressed. Plus, suits always get torn on the metal edges when you're walking around a sheet metal shop.
"Of course, sometimes you do need to wear a suit. It all depends on the circumstances. If I were a salesman calling on you in a Mercedes-Benz, what would you think? But if I were a doctor consulting with you on a heart operation, how would you feel if I drove up in an old beater?"
13 How to feel financially secure. "Carry a $50 bill folded up inside your wallet to be used only in emergencies. That way, you'll never feel broke."
14 Resist sales management if it's not your cup of tea. One of the industry's biggest fallacies is automatically promoting top sales performers to management positions - and making that the only way someone can get ahead financially.
Ken worked for a time as a manager when he was in the steel industry, but discovered that he hated it.
"I love to be with people. Paperwork has to get done, but every minute I'm in the office I feel like I'm doing a disservice to my customers. So I spend as little time in the office as possible. They call me 'the phantom.'"
15 The personal touch is crucial. Every year Ken sends out Christmas cards showing one of the sports cars he races. Each has its own name.
"It's distinct. You need to find something that separates you from everyone else," Bottini says.
"Some people think only of how much money they can make on the job. This job is about people, and attitude counts for everything."