Before anybody is going to buy from you or your company, they've got to "buy" the idea that you're somebody worth working with. In other words, just like a job candidate, your first task is always selling yourself.
Here are a few ways to go about it.
Before visiting a customer, examine the company's website. Notice how they communicate about themselves, how they view their market, and whom they see as their primary customers. Use Wikipedia and other online resources (like Hoovers.com) to learn the basics and the background of the industry and market. Then use LinkedIn and online news stories to learn about key individuals in the hiring firm, especially those working in sales and marketing.
At some point in the relationship, the customer is going to want to know what you're all about. The best way to give an impression of who you are is to tell a personal story about some event in your life that inspired your interest in what you're selling: that is, your company and your products.
For example, if you own a chemical wholesaler, start your story with the chemistry set that you had as a kid and explain how you've always been fascinated by how the chemical industry works.
Before buying, a customer will want to know specifics about what you and your firm has accomplished. "Tell detailed accomplishment stories that clearly illustrate the ... challenge, what [you] did about it, what results [you] produced," says Ford R. Myers, author of the newly published Get the Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring.
At the risk of stating the obvious, you don't have a second chance to make a first impression. If your meeting with a customer is face to face, get lots of rest the night before, wear your best clothes, leave plenty of time for traffic, and arrive at least 10 minutes early.
Just before the interview starts, take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand. That's not "making the sale," but rather determining whether your offering actually match the customer's wants and needs.
Never ask questions that could be answered with a little research on the Web. Instead, ask questions, and start conversations, that build on the research that you accomplished in Step 1–and which illustrate your business acumen. Provide relevant examples of what you and your firm have accomplished in the past, and tie them into the requirements of the current situation.
As the meeting comes to its conclusion, establish the way forward. In most situations, this will be another meeting, or some form of communication. Most importantly, you must follow up immediately on any commitment that you've made. A prompt follow-up tells your customer that you'll do what's necessary to make them more successful–without forcing them to wait for you.
This is adapted from a feature article I wrote on "how to interview for a sales job" for the recruitment and employment site FINS.com. If you found this column helpful, click one of the "like" buttons or sign up for the free Sales Source "insider" newsletter.