Inc. Query

Q. Last year I came to this country from Glasgow and started a business importing tea from England and wholesaling it to independent outlets throughout the United States. My brand, Rather Jolly Tea, competes with other teas on the high end of the market. I do almost all my selling over the phone. My question: how do I know who's worth spending the time calling back? I find people say they'll give me an order but don't. After how many calls should I give up? Right now, it takes 4 to 10 conversations with someone to get an order.
--David Grace, owner, J.G. British Imports, Sarasota, Fla.

A. The economics of telephone selling can be daunting. "In general we know that for every 20 calls you place, you'll actually speak to 15 people. Seven of those will ask you to follow up with a second call, and of those, 2 or 3 will be prospects, and one will buy," says Stephan Schiffman, a New York sales trainer.

But you can't assume that every 20 new calls will yield a sale. You could fare far better or worse--depending on your timing, product niche, and ability to establish a rapport with prospects. "I'm trying to dispel the myth that for every no, you're closer to a yes," says Art Sobczak, editor of Art Sobczak's Telephone Selling Report, an Omaha-based newsletter. "David has a finite list of prospects, and the goal shouldn't be to burn through them as quickly as possible."

Because you're selling a product about as old as time itself, both Schiffman and Sobczak agree that you should be able to close a sale within two phone conversations. "And you really shouldn't go beyond four calls," notes Schiffman. "Not because you're being a pest but because of the selling costs."

Sobczak encourages you to take the initial call as far as you can "as long as they're still dancing with you. Do whatever it takes to try to get an order even on that first call if it's going well." You have little to lose by doing a small trial order or offering a 30-day guarantee.

Frankly, Sobczak is worried by your statement that "people say they'll give me an order but don't." That indicates you're "not getting enough information about when someone might buy and how much. If the prospect says, 'We're really not ready yet,' you say, 'Let's arrange another phone call when you think you'd be ready.' From the answer you'll know if it's a blow-off or a valid reason for waiting," Sobczak advises.

Likewise, you shouldn't have to make numerous callbacks to get the next order, says seasoned tea importer Al Sharif, owner of GlobeTrends, in Chatham, N.J. "If he's doing the right things in the right way on the phone," and still not making progress, Sobczak agrees, "then I'd have to look at his product and marketing." -- Susan Greco

Been There, Done That

Victoria magazine recently wrote, "What Steinway is to pianos, Harney & Sons is to tea." So we asked tea blender John Harney, CEO of Harney & Sons, in Salisbury, Conn., to give start-up tea entrepreneur David Grace some marketing advice. Here are Harney's suggestions, based on 14 years of experience running his company, which reports sales of more than $2.5 million:

"You never give up, but don't spend all your time on the phone. You've got to show your face--open a can, give a smell, make a pot of tea. These sales take place one cup at a time. Often you're selling yourself first, the product second. Even now I have sales reps only in a few places I don't travel to myself.

"Trade shows can be a good way to get in front of a lot of buyers. For the first five or six years, I shared a booth at the Fancy Food Show with a friend, a salesperson repping canned fish, honey, and a garlic spread. You might want to start with cheaper regional shows. But be careful: some are dogs.

"Targeting British shops is not a bad idea, either. I sell a lot there. You have to have your base. You could also partner with someone else to offer British scarves, buttons, teapots, silver, and other British-only lines. Make it worth it to call on these stores. Showing your face is crucial."