In last month's column, Dave Gleason discussed the importance of gathering information about your competition, including the competitor's price and what a customer is getting for his or her dollar from you and from your competitor. This month he begins by demonstrating the way some sales people try to qualify prospects over the telephone by giving them a price.

"Hello, ABC Heating & Cooling, my name is Dave. How may I help you?" The prospect says they are looking for air conditioning so you get some information and then quote them a qualifier price. Sound familiar? Why not answer the phone, "Hello, ABC Heating & Cooling, Dave speaking. If you called about air conditioning, the price will be approximately $3,500. How's that price?" Sound ridiculous? So does trying to qualify a customer on the phone. Every call is a potential sale; there are few people who call dealers to pass the time of day. Treating every call seriously will allow you the opportunity to create a sale and gather new information for that competitive file.

How would you discover what kind of jobs the other contractors are installing? I recommend two methods to gather this data. One is to always ask if the customer has gotten any other prices. If they have, suggest that they compare what you have offered to what the other dealers have offered. This gives you great information on what is being offered but more importantly it allows you to talk about the differences you are offering and why. The "Ben Franklin" close is a great way to gather this type of data. Remember always take this data with you when you leave; it is more reliable than your memory.

The second way is to follow up on all calls, whether you made the sale or not. Following up on jobs sold is a requirement of all successful dealers in order to get referrals. If you didn't make the sale, ask if they were happy with the installation. Quite often the job they expected is not what they got and they are too embarrassed to call you. It could turn into a new or future customer. But more importantly, you get a chance to see the job and the workmanship.

If they say they are satisfied, ask if you could see the job. We all learn from our mistakes and lost sales. Be sure not to knock the competition while your talking to the customer. Knocking the competition is a no-no! It only reflects on you and your company in a negative way.

Other ways to learn

There are many other ways you can discover essential data on the competition. Observe other dealers in the places where you both trade. Watch their advertisements and cut them out and save them.

I had a dealer once tell me that he used the competition's ads to make a positive point during his closing. The dealer was in the local yellow pages with a local phone number but was actually located in another town. When the dealers name came up this contractor simply showed the ad with the address taken from the dealer's home town. The local dealer simply said, "How will you feel on a snow-driven night and you need service only to hear this dealer say he can't get to you?"

Take a look at the competition's trucks. Are they clean and well-painted? If not, talk about why your trucks are kept clean and the image you want to create. Talk about your policy of working neat and clean during the installation. Describe how your men use plastic boots to ensure that you will not track dirt into the home.

Talk about the way you go to extremes to insure the home is as clean as you found it. The idea is to pick the weakness of the competition and build your strengths around those weaknesses. Sales are created by selling the differences between you and the competition. These value-added services are sometimes perceived differences by the customer but don't take it for granted - sell your differences. Talk about what makes you superior, NEVER what makes competition inferior.

If you are going to be the local comfort specialist, your reputation and company name is more important than the brand names you are selling. Please keep in mind that the customer is buying from you, not the manufacturer of the products you are installing. Sell yourself and your company, not brand names. You'll be more profitable.

Brand and product information is data that should be kept as hard copy with you on a sale. I talk about using a presentation folder and its importance in making the sale. One of the three main areas of the presentation folder is the literature on your product or service. There is something about the customer seeing the information in black and white that makes it valid.

I also talk about the rear section of the folder or a separate book being devoted to the competition's products. Using the competition's literature to answer what appears to be a "misstatement" by another salesperson puts everything they have said in doubt. It can only be used when you know you are right and on solid ground. If you are wrong, you are in deep water and you better be able to swim.

Compare warranties

One of the best examples of competitive literature being used in a sale is in the case of warranties. It is hard to believe with all the " new sophisticated buyers" in the market, the lack of understanding people have about warranty terms.

What is meant by "Lifetime guarantee" or "Pro-rata warranty" or "A 20-year pro-rata warranty"? If you have a great warranty, why not sell it? But be prepared to have the prospect challenge you on another product. My suggestion is to have a copy of the other warranties with you and show the prospect the differences while you are there.

Having a complete package of everyone's essential literature affords you the opportunity to close the job the first time you are in the home. My "Back to Basics" seminar examines all the reasons we haven't been closing on one call in the past. We show how to accomplish this feat using information developed in this article.

We have explained the benefits of having this material at our finger tips during the sale but how do we get this information? The easiest way to obtain product information is at trade shows or from salespeople calling on you. Every salesperson calling on you is a great source of information not only about the competition but about the products they sell. Take the information and keep a competitive file for future use. You never know when one of the local people will take on this line and when they do you'll have the data to compete.

Another way to collect data is on those jobs you sell where the customer has received competitive bids. Ask for the literature; the customer probably would have thrown it out anyway. Sometimes tucked inside is a copy of an old quote giving you a bonus package.

The process of gathering competitive data is forever. You will never be completely up to date with products you don't sell. Most of us have a tough time keeping up to date with the products we do sell.

Have sales meetings

One of the great benefits of having more than one salesperson on staff is having sales meetings. This is a terrific forum for exchange of information from area to area and about possible areas to address in future sales. Having sales meetings is where salespeople collect the spirit and motivation to go out and do battle. It is where the company can get a true feel for the market and make adjustments to meet new opportunities.

Sales meetings are a must where there are more than two salespeople, but very few companies have them for fear of having a complaint session instead of a sales meeting. Positive sales meetings come when the control of the meeting is planned and orchestrated. Don't miss the opportunity to exchange good up to date competitive information at a monthly or weekly sales meeting.

There are many different ways you can obtain information about the competition and the products or services they offer. Any method you find successful to provide you with this information should be used and shared with other salespeople in your organization. Having the ability to answer and manage objections raised during a sales presentation is the only reason to have this information.

A salesperson has only one purpose in any organization: to close sales. Don't spend more time than the information is worth; keep it in perspective. If this information is not available, then make a concerted effort to collect this information and keep it up to date.

My experience has shown me that we all need to hone our selling skills and improve our presentations. We need to get back to some of the basics of selling. We need to remember our successes and how they occurred. We need to reflect on how we can improve our skills and improve our closing ratios.

The price and competitive information is only two small threads in the fabric we call selling. Take the time to learn your profession. Seek out the skills you need to improve and find ways to integrate these new skills into your selling system. Selling is an art of using proven skills and through testing, finding what works for you. That is why our ever-changing profession of selling is so fresh and exciting.