It's been said many times that timing is everything. This is certainly true throughout the selling cycle. To illustrate, following is a case study that will also show even seasoned sales veterans aren't exempt from deal-killing mistakes.

The scenario takes place in North Carolina while I was assisting a contractor client in the sale of a very large planned maintenance program. The building was owner-occupied by a high-tech light manufacturer. The mechanical system was made up of 64 gas-fired, roof-mounted packaged units varying in age from two to 13 years. The contractor who had the maintenance contract was very small and operated with an equally small overhead. He'd been replacing heat exchangers on several of the units with only one left to go.

The general manager asked me to give her a price to replace the last one. Making an unwarranted assumption that this sale was in the bag, I agreed to get them a price on the heat exchanger replacement. Upon delivering the quote — which I thought was pretty low — the general manager told me we were more than double the price of their current provider. I immediately sensed the wheels coming off this sale. She said, "I'll get back to you soon."

A few days later she called and informed us that she had acquired two other bids and we weren't in the picture. Lesson learned. From that point forward, I stopped quoting projects (if there are other contractors involved) until the service agreement is in hand.

Timing is critical. During the information-gathering portion of the first call, always determine whether the prospect has a service agreement in place and what the anniversary date is. If the date is 90 days or less, I will proceed with the surveying and fact-finding process. More than 90 days will prompt me to set another appointment closer to the anniversary date. Too many times I've performed the survey and found numerous problems to share with the prospect. The incumbent is informed and makes all kinds of concessions to keep the customer. The only exception to this is when the prospect is very dissatisfied with their present service company.

A deal breaker: stretching the selling cycle out too far. All too often we get bogged down in the process and months later discover that we've not only missed the sale, but wasted valuable selling time. Still, there are some legitimate processes that must occur with prospects, such as providing the required documents and information to become their vendor. More customers today ask for proof of insurance, bonding, safety records, etc. To be prepared, I recommend you have several packages readily available both in hard copy and electronically, so that your sales person can simply grab and go.

The same holds true for references. I solicit reference letters in advance from as many customers as possible and carry them with me on every call. Then, if a prospect asks for them, I simply offer a copy of as many letters as it takes to satisfy their need.

Another pitfall: gathering ALL the decision makers for a final presentation. Nearly every verteran salesperson has experienced that crushing feeling right after delivering a final presentation only to have the prospect say the decision must go to a higher level.

Several years ago I developed a seven-page slide presentation (usually used in hard copy) which I use as my qualifier on the front end of the selling cycle. This allows me to gain commitment, gather the information I need (such as maintenance records and energy bills), and set the time and place for the final presentation. It also calls for the identification of ALL the decision makers. Nothing is 100%, but this puts the odds of closing the sale much higher while giving me control of the selling cycle. The longer the selling cycle the less chance for success.

Finally, one critical timing mistake is not knowing when to close. This is sales basics 101. I recently gave a full coverage presentation to a large church and private school. At the end of the presentation, one board member said, "We haven't done a very good job with our maintenance program in the past, I think we should accept Mr. King's program."

There could be no better buying sign. Before I could pull the trigger, another board member asked if my company installed building automation systems. I could see the sale getting dragged down an off ramp so I simply answered "Yes, but until your mechanical systems are back to a top level of efficiency, energy-saving retrofits are of no value." Then I suggested they vote on accepting the proposal before them.

One of the all-time great movie lines helps me remember this lesson. In one of the "spaghetti westerns" Clint Eastwood shot the villain and told him, "You need to know when it's time to talk and when it's time to shoot."

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, and 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.