Knowledge: the Key to Sales Success

I found a very interesting statement recently on a tee shirt, of all places.

On the front of the tee shirt, with bars like a jail cell, was printed: "IGNORANCE IS A PRISON." On the back side, over a large golden skeleton key glowing in bright fuchsia, were the words, "KNOWLEDGE IS THE KEY."

I'm keenly aware of how the possession of knowledge is critical to the development of sales skills - and, ultimately, to success in both the kitchen and bath industry and in life itself.

Let me illustrate: I'm writing this column during the 1998 Christmas shopping season, and I've just come in contact with people responsible for selling things - without being equipped with the knowledge that you and I would expect.

Let's view this for a moment from the perspective of a customer searching for knowledge and sales skills. In my case, I was looking for an AM-FM tape and disc player. I was shopping at a small electronics store in which the owner was also a salesperson - not dissimilar in nature to the kind of small independent kitchen and bath dealerships that typify our industry.

Among several people posturing as salespeople, I finally found one who was willing to take time, ask questions, listen, and then explain how a specific brand and model would fit my needs and budget.

The good news for me was that these products don't come in a variety of wood species, colors and door styles, like cabinetry; in contrast, they come like Henry Ford's early cars - all in black. This, of course, makes it much easier than shopping for products in our industry. Still, without the salesperson's assistance, I was pretty helpless except for self-testing the ones on the shelf, reading the sales tags and comparing the features on the colorful cartons.

Learning a lesson
The lesson in this was immediately clear to me. As salespeople, we should always be testing ourself by asking, "What does my prospect get when they find me?"

My son and business partner Jeff Palmer and I have just started a new company selling and installing all kinds of floor covering. Our first goal was to find and hire the most knowledgeable and strongest floor covering manager to run the company. Our second goal was to find the most knowledgeable salespeople, installers, etc. Why? Because we believe today's marketplace is structured in a way that similar products and services have similar pricing. The difference in selling today doesn't come in the box - it comes in the people. The difference lies in knowledge and skills - and how you and your sales staff, through your base of knowledge, provide viable solutions to your customers' needs.

Honing your skills
In my view, the three major areas of knowledge relevant to kitchen and bath sales are (1) industry knowledge, (2) selling knowledge, and (3) knowledge about human relationships.

Of these three, industry knowledge may be the easiest to acquire. There is an ocean of opportunities out there for kitchen and bath specialists to take advantage of: College classes, manufacturer's training, in-house programs at your own company, the training materials and courses offered by the NKBA, and all the educational programs offered at national and regional trade shows. I feel if one is diligent, a beginner can acquire the knowledge necessary to function in our industry in 12 to 18 months The need for more knowledge, however, is never ending. The need to continue learning is always there.

Selling knowledge is a little tougher to acquire. The chances are slim of learning it in college. In a similar, and equally unfortunate, vein, manufacturers are seemingly bent on teaching the technical side of their products - and miss the opportunity at the same time to teach how to sell those products.

Sales knowledge can be augmented by reading whatever you can get your hands on about selling. You may also want to attend local seminars on selling. I suggest you find a mentor in the kitchen and bath industry who will share with you his or her selling methods and help you develop your own.

The toughest part in the development of selling skills is that not only does it require understanding the basics, but it also includes the necessity of "practicing" both privately and in front of customers.

Many people in the kitchen and bath industry feel their design abilities alone will sell their services; yet those designers who intend to rise to the top are continually executing excellent selling skills.

Selling styles are also different for everyone. In fact, it's something like a fingerprint. Once you acquire the knowledge of selling and set in motion the improvement of your skills, you'll develop a selling style you're comfortable with. It's not my way or any other mentor's way that matters; we can only help you find your way.

Gaining 'people' skills
Finding, acquiring and developing a knowledge of human relations is the toughest task of all. You may have the technical industry knowledge and selling knowledge you need to be successful, but without human relations knowledge and skills, you really have very little.

Without a high level of human relation skills, you'll inevitably be viewed by customers as the "technical industry intellectual nerd," or the "pushy type" of salesperson, plowing forward without the success you hope for.

To hone your human relations skills, I suggest you read biographies of super achievers. Find in these people the characteristics that made them successful. Imitate as best you can the characteristics they possess. Look at Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie courses.

Once you start looking for opportunities to learn human relation skills, you'll find all kinds of sources available. Some may fit your needs better than others, but if you're alert and open-minded, you'll learn from any of them.

Ask again where you are with your base of knowledge? Are you the knowledgeable professional your next prospect expects to meet?

Don't be surprised, when you explore ways to elevate your knowledge, that there's price attached in terms of both money and time. My suggestion is to make the investment, and open up a brand new world of opportunity.

And if, on your journey, you start to feel that the effort isn't worth it, just remember the opening statement of this column: "Ignorance is a prison; knowledge is the key."