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Don't talk to everybody and don't apologize Featured

10:10am EDT July 22, 2002

Don't talk to everybody and don't apologize

A local consulting firm tripled revenues in one year by overhauling the way it sells.

By Teresa Dixon Murray

It seemed that everything was going well for Q Integrated Networks Inc., until Michael Mata was faced with a disturbing reality: Like many young entrepreneurs, he was the president and chief salesman.

Company growth had forced him to spend more time managing and sales suffered.

That had to change.

"If I was going to grow my company beyond what I could sell, I had to have a systematic approach to sales," Mata says.

He hired outside sales consultants both to overhaul his own sales approach and to help him adopt a program that he could easily duplicate for others.

Today, a year and a half after he began the training through Sandler Sales Institute, Mata says his company's sales have more than tripled, his staff has expanded to 11 and he's opened two additional offices. Sales for the Cuyahoga Falls computer systems and software development company last year neared $1 million, and revenues exceeded the '97 figure in just the first quarter of this year. That's some return on his $10,000 investment, he says.

Mata is one of about 30 executives currently participating in the local Sandler program, launched three years ago. Consultants Bill Art and James Dagley, who have offices in Cuyahoga Falls and Canton, license the national Sandler program for this region.

Dagley notes that dozens of sales training programs can provide good results. The Sandler program, he says, "is a communication system, rather than a selling system."

Mata doesn't care what it's called. He says it was perfect timing for the help his business needed a year ago. Here are some of the ways he has overhauled his sales system:

Not everyone is a prospect

Much of Q Integrated's success with the new approach can be attributed to how Mata and his staff spend their time. They identify true prospects sooner and waste less time on clients who will never buy.

Mata says he previously measured how hard he worked based on the quantity of sales calls. Now quality matters.

At one time Mata and his staff set appointments by phone with almost anyone who would say yes to getting together. Now, they try first to make sure the meeting will be worth their time. "Once I come through the door, there's a 90 percent chance I'll close," Mata says.

By phone, Mata and his two salespeople take prospects through various steps of the program, such as building rapport and gauging pain. They then try to determine how serious the prospect really is.

"I'll say, 'How about if we get together in about three or four weeks?' If you say, 'OK,' then that tells me it's not that important to you."

That leads Mata to other questions which assess whether the customer is truly busy or whether he or she is agreeing to a meeting out of curiosity or to milk him for information. If it's not the right motive, "you might get to the point where you say to the person, 'It doesn't look like a fit here.' "

Mata says the program shows results quickly. "Your sales go more smoothly. You know which ones are going to close, and you cut out a lot of those headache clients."

Mata's hit list today is considerably smaller, which is right in line with the philosophy Dagley recites: "Everybody is a suspect, not a prospect."

Stop doing proposals

Mata says his selling process used to be a merry-go-round of proposals. In the end, he had lots of bids but few jobs.

He realized that many executives requesting a proposal have already decided on another vendor-they simply want another bid on file. In other cases, they use the information he provided in a proposal to educate themselves and to know how to ask his competitors better questions.

A proposal from Mata involves preparing a network design blueprint-a sophisticated document that can take hours of time from Mata and his technicians, who bill at $125 an hour.

"We did proposals like they went out of style," Mata recalls.

Mata says he's learned to value both his information and his time. "Proposals don't take me to the bank," he says. "In our industry as a whole, some people willingly give this information away. ... Everything in our industry is a commodity."

Now, Mata gives a bid if the network is already designed. That takes less than an hour to prepare. But he tells clients he'll charge for a full proposal if they don't hire him.

He acknowledges that it'll take a while to change the industry mindset.

"One guy even threatened to report me to the Better Business Bureau," Mata laughs, "because I wanted to charge him for a proposal.

"I'm sure there are a handful of clients we lose because we don't do proposals," he adds, but he says he believes the time saved more than pays for the occasional job he loses.

Talking money isn't taboo

Many sales programs teach people to skirt the dollar-sign issue until the prospect is locked in. Mata takes the opposite approach. "I find out whether price is an issue almost immediately. If so, we get out.

"If $2,000 is your maximum for a certain project, I'll say, 'I've got to stop you right now. I'm going to tell you I don't think I can do this for that price. ... You're talking $15,000 to do all of these things.'

"I look to see if you fall off of your chair," he says. If the project is completely unaffordable, Mata wants to know now because he won't try to talk someone into spending more money than they plan.

Don't apologize if you're expensive

Besides wasting Mata's time, proposals have actually worked against him because he tends to be higher priced. He doesn't try to hide that, but finds that it doesn't serve him well to have his detailed numbers sprawled out before a client knows what they mean.

Bill Art of Sandler suggests that vendors such as Mata can reply to a request for a proposal by saying, "I can't remember the last time I was the low bidder."

Mata is more direct. "I tend to be the highest price."

And he doesn't apologize for that.

"Wal-Mart is very inexpensive. They have economies of scale to their advantage. Being a much smaller company, you don't have that."

He tells people: You get what you pay for.

Accept "no" as a good answer

Salespeople are conditioned to dread the word "no." But it's a good answer if it keeps them from wasting time.

When Mata's on a sales call, he says, " 'Yes' is OK. 'No' is OK. 'I've got to think it over' is not OK."

Definitive "yes" answers don't necessarily mean a signed contract, but an agreement that it's worth taking the next step toward a decision. Mata establishes "continual up-front contracts" of expectations, so both sides know what to anticipate from a given conversation.

Close deals faster

When Mata planned budgets and cash flow previously, he knew that the average time from first meeting to contract was three to five months.

Today, it's two to five weeks.

"I wanted to reduce my product cycle," he says. "It was hurting the business."

Most of the decrease stems from all the wasted meetings Mata and his staff no longer attend. "It was a lot of chasing the wrong prospects and starting to target the audience we wanted."

Not even halfway through 1998, Mata expects to nearly triple sales again this year, projecting $2.5 million to $3 million. How much has the new sales approach meant to his business?

"How about everything?" Mata answers quickly. "It's part of the culture now. It might have even saved my business."