It has long been said that, "a salesperson without an appointment is momentarily unemployed." Making the initial contact is the first major step in the selling cycle. There are five distinct methods in making the initial contact; phone call, cold call, mailing campaigns, associations, and networking. In future articles, I will discuss each in detail, but, for now let's address my favorite: setting appointments by phone.

Most of the salespeople I work with, either in my seminars or on direct consulting assignments, confess they struggle with this step. Yes, smiling and dialing is tough, but everyone can improve their hit rate.

First, always remember your objective is to simply set an appointment. Sounds academic, but, if I haven't worked the phones for a while, I write myself a note that says, "SELL THE APPOINTMENT STUPID." (Stupid is optional). It's far too easy to stray down other verbal paths like preventive maintenance, saving energy, or simply asking what program they presently have in place. All of this leads to a prospect dumping you early in the conversation.

When setting appointments, there are several common hurdles to overcome. Getting to the decision maker is always a challenge. Today, with the Internet, I take the time to do my research. Before dialing, I visit a potential client's website where it’s frequently easy to find the owner/manager's name. If you wish to be even more thorough, go to the county assessor's site, type in the address, and discover how many square feet the building has, get the names of owner(s), learn about any permits issued, and when the building was purchased. Even better is Dunn & Bradstreet reports. If you're fortunate to have access, you’ll find number of employees, duration of the business, owners (even their age), and how well they pay their bills.

The next opportunity is how to get past the receptionist. I swear some gate keepers were Marine drill sergeants in a former life. Try to keep your voice conversational — don't sound like a salesperson, even though you are. There's nothing wrong with a little stumbling. Anything is better than sounding "canned" or worse yet "polished". Until a few years ago my opening sounded like this: "Hi, I’m Earl from ABC and I need to speak with someone about the air conditioning".

While I had many years of successful appointment setting with this method, I changed one word and that made a remarkable difference: "Hi, I’m Earl from ABC and I'm supposed to talk with someone about the air conditioning". Ninety percent of the time I'd get right through to my first contact. If you want it to be even more effective, ask them to help you. While this may seem a little bold, it's honest. You're indeed supposed to talk with prospects.

Another hurdle is voice mail. When transferred from the receptionist to the prospect, often your call will go to that person’s voice mail box. Combined with caller ID, voicemail makes it easier for prospects to decide NOT to call back.

Leaving a message doesn't create results; however, if you can leave a provocative message, your odds increase. Remember, if you go to the web first, you'll know the building's square footage before the call. I simply divide the footage by 400 to arrive at the tonnage. Then, by multiplying the tonnage by $1,500 to $1,800, I have an approximation as to the replacement cost. When leaving a voice message, I always reference the replacement cost they will be faced with. This usually gets a response or at least doesn't shut any doors.

Another electronic pain in the neck is the automated phone system. I've learned to make them work to my advantage. This type of phone system usually provides you with a list of departments and a number to follow. For example, "If you wish to speak to shipping, press 1, if you wish to speak to human resources, press 2". I simply pick one of the selections and get transferred to a department that has nothing to do with the HVAC equipment. When they discover that I reached them by mistake, they will route the call to the person I wanted to speak with initially. You see, while receptionists are well skilled in screening phone calls, human resource folks are not.

Once connected to the right person, I soft pedal my way to the appointment. It might sound like this, "Ms. Jones, this is Earl from ABC. I know that you already have a program in place for the HVAC, but at ABC we have some unique ideas that just might be able to help with your budget in this terrible economy. At the very least I would like to meet you and leave some info. When would you have time?" Not threatening, but gets the job done at least a third of the time.

If you or your sales staff have been making 20 to 30 phone calls to make one appointment, it's time for change. Everyone knows that the economy is still struggling, regardless of what economists say. More competition and reluctant prospects mean we all have to work harder.

Earl King is the founder of King Productions International, a commercial HVAC contracting sales consulting firm based in Texas. He speaks to associations and HVAC trade groups, as well as consults with commerical contractors across the country, in addition to writing this column for Contracting Business.com. Email Earl with any questions or comments at: profithvac@aol.com or call him at 515/321-2426.