Lay the groundwork with customer filtering.

BY TOM JARED

No business will succeed without generating sales. It’s one of the critical functions that most every business shares, regardless of its size, where it’s located, and what it does.

Yet it’s also a function that many entrepreneurs either underestimate or don’t fully understand when laying the groundwork for their small business, or a function they only consider once their business is up and running.

Mike Michalowicz, author of “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” and “The Pumpkin Plan,” says that, “entrepreneurs are often in ‘panic mode.’ They go after everyone rather than pursue a consistent customer profile. They don’t ask the right questions because they don’t know what those questions are.”

Michalowicz goes on to say that like every component of business, sales are systemizable.

“The groundwork for that system is filtering,” he says. “Look for information and characteristics that differentiate good customers from less attractive ones. As you develop the questions, you can develop the system for sales.”

Another very important factor to keep in mind as you pull your sales strategy together deals with understanding your primary competitor. Sure there are other businesses that do what you do, but when it comes down to it, your No. 1 competitor is simply the status quo.

Despite all of the many sales manuals that tell you to “uncover the prospects’ needs” or, my favorite, “dig to find their pain,” the simple fact is your prospect has gotten along pretty well without your product or service up to now. So your job is to show them how they are better off with your product than without it.

A key element is to continually gather information about your customers, particularly the issues that are important to them. And your customers are the best source of these insights. Speak with them regularly about their wants and expectations.

“Customers will share these things with you,” Michalowicz says. “And if you ask frequently enough, you’ll find these are the same issues prospective customers are facing. So you can apply responses across the board.”

Michalowicz also advises concentrating on the best customers you have, or want to have. “See what factors make them appealing, and prepare for them,” he says. “Companies that assess the practices of their worst customers often end up attracting more of them.”

A positive attitude is always important for you and everyone who interacts with customers, whether it’s in person, over the phone, or online. Everyone needs to listen when interacting with a customer, especially if a customer has what seems to be an emergency or extraordinary need. If you can help, great. If not, recommend possible other sources who can, even if they’re competitors.

Either way, customers will see you not as just a source of products or services, but a resource for helping them do what they do better. And because they’re your best source of referrals, they’ll tell their colleagues about you.

Tom Jared is a SCORE volunteer mentor. To learn more about sales and marketing issues facing your small business, contact asheville.score.org. SCORE — which originally stood for Service Corps of Retired Executives — is a nonprofit organization whose volunteers provide free, confidential business mentoring and training workshops to small business owners.