Success in sales is as much a result of good information management as it is a result of a good sales pitch. In fact, competitive intelligence will get you further than a good sales pitch ever will.

"Know your competition" is a common phrase familiar to most salespeople, but what does it really mean?

Here are seven definitions that you can use to not only know your competition, but to better understand your company as well.

Know Their Products
Before we worry too much about the competition, it's worth mentioning that real sales professionals know their own products. Perhaps you've heard it said that true salespeople don't need to know their products; that sales skills will make up for any deficiencies they might have in product knowledge. That's true, to some degree. Some people are of the opinion that technical knowledge hurts salespeople. That's not true. Why short change yourself? Why not learn both selling skills and your products?

Having said that, you should visit the websites of every HVAC manufacturer and print out the pages that feature their equipment, insert them into page protectors, then put them into a loose-leaf binder with dividers, segregating each manufacturer.

Then, whenever someone asks you, in so many words, "Do you know anything about XYZ manufacturer's equipment?" you can pull out your very thick binder and say, "I've done extensive research on them. Is there a particular model you were interested in or anything in particular you would you like to know about that brand; or would you like to know how my equipment compares with theirs?"

The point here is not to bore them with a seminar on every single option available. The binder itself and the obvious amount of work that you invested in compiling the information and studying what's available makes a huge statement about you. They don't want an HVAC salesman; they want an HVAC professional. They want someone who lives, eats, breathes, sleeps and thinks nothing but HVAC. That kind of individual inspires confidence.

Professionalism also comes from training. So make it a point to attend any and all product and/ or sales training available in your area, no matter who the sponsoring manufacturer or distributor is.

Check Out The Yellow Pages™
Start by obtaining a five-year old copy of the Yellow Pages (YP). Cut out the sections with HVAC contractors and compare it to a YP current copy. Draw a red line through all the companies that have gone out of business over the last five years (that's usually about half of the listings). Slip them into page protectors then put them into your presentation binder. This makes a great visual aid.

Start tracking your competition; who comes, who goes. Check this year's YP with last year's and see who's gone out of business and try to buy their telephone number. Sometimes you can get it for next to nothing, other times they want an arm and a leg for it. Make a list of all the companies in the YP that weren't there five years ago. This list is just for your personal knowledge.

Put your current copy of the YP into page protectors then put them into your presentation binder. This comes in handy for all kinds of things.

Keep Tabs On Competitive Advertising
Cut out every print ad your competitors run, put them in page protectors, and slip them into your presentation binder. Do the same with your own ads.

When prospects mention some great deal the competition is offering (although they never seem to be able to put their finger on the exact ad they're quoting), you can pull it out and say, "You mean this one?"

Call Competitors' Shops
Many shops boast of 24-hour service in their advertising, but do they really offer it? On a Sunday afternoon, call some of your competitors and try to book a service call. You'll be lucky to actually talk to an employee of the company. Also call them during normal business hours to see how they're answering the phone.

As a side note, call your own shop at least once every two weeks, then be prepared for a big disappointment. Often when I call, I can't understand the name of the company and it's clearly obvious to me that my call has inconvenienced a very busy person. Any chance that's happening to your customers when they call? How's this for an idea: give callers a warm feeling and make them feel like you're glad they called.

Visit Competitors' Shops
Most contractors' shops are nothing special. When a prospect tells you they've decided to go with your lowerpriced competitor, you can ask, "Have you been to their office?" That's all. It raises doubts in their mind.

You should keep your own shop presentable looking at all times, if for no other reason, for your own morale and that of your employees. Your shop doesn't have to look like the Taj Mahal. In fact, I believe that many consumers don't want to see a contractor with an opulent office.

Consider clearing a small place in your shop to display at least one top-of-the-line furnace and air conditioner as well as some IAQ products and brochures. Then, when you run a call you can't close on the first visit, ask them if they'd like to see it before they buy it, and invite them to your shop.

Visit With Competitors Personally
Keep your friends close . . . and your competitors closer. Get to know the people who you consistently bid against. Sit down with them for coffee, a meal, or drinks. Be a good listener. Don't volunteer a lot of information that could be used against you. Ask a lot of questions, like, "What do you do when you run sales calls? Do you draw the home and run a load calc on each call?"

Sales is all mental. It's important for salespeople to appear confident. Getting to know your competition can provide a real boost to your confidence. In most cases, you'll walk away from the meeting wondering how they ever beat you out of a sale.

Start Collecting Proposals
When people buy from you, ask them if you can have the other proposals they collected. Most people will give them to you freely, but this is something that you could also use as a negotiating tool. When you've got a customer who wants you to lower your price, you could agree to lower it a certain amount if they would give you the other proposals they've collected as well as some insight as to what was said or done by each salesperson. Many customers get a kick out of that.

Does this all sound like a lot of work to you? Becoming a top salesperson involves a lot more than simply knowing a good sales pitch. Anything you can do up front to improve your closing ratio will save you time and effort over the course of your career.

The late Tom McCart, who was considered by some to be the greatest HVAC salesman of his time, used to say, "The hardest part of becoming a top salesperson is preparing to become a top salesperson." He also used to say, "Successful people do what unsuccessful people are unable to do or are unwilling to try."

Charlie Greer is an award-winning HVAC salesman, the creator of Tec Daddy's Service Technician Survival School on DVD, the instructor for Charlie Greer's 4-Day Sales Survival School (held every spring and fall in Ft. Myers, Florida), and the sponsor of Comfortech Idol, the search for the best salesperson at HVAC Comfortech. For information on Charlie's speaking schedule and products, and to order a FREE copy of "Comfortech Idols on DVD" ($6.95 shipping & handling fee), call 800/963-HVAC or go to www.hvacprofitboosters.com. You can e-mail Charlie at charlie@hvacprofitboosters.com.