Every step of the selling cycle is critical in producing the desired end result, however none are quite as critical as the first call presentation. By definition, the first call is when the salesperson sits face-to-face with at least one decision maker. Anything short of this is simply a fact-finding mission.

I have never been a proponent of a canned pitch or scripted presentation since the prospect typically doesn't have the same script. At the same time, preparedness is key to directing the interview toward a successful conclusion. Mastering the art of probing allows the salesperson to shift gears on the spot, while never losing control of the meeting.

I structure my first call presentation around four basic types of questions. I begin every interview with the closed-ended question. This series of questioning calls for one word answers. For example, "How old is your equipment? Are you planning to stay in the building indefinitely? Do you presently have a recurring maintenance program?"

There are two reasons for beginning with closed probes. First, this provides an opportunity to gather some pertinent information to be used later. Second, it allows the salesperson to move the interview in a direction they choose. Once they believe they have adequate information, it's time to call for a dialogue. This is accomplished with an open-ended question.

The open question calls for the prospect to share their thoughts and concerns regarding their HVAC needs. One very effective open-ended question is, "If there were anything you could change about your present maintenance procedures, what would that be?" Or, "when a major breakdown occurs, what is the procedure?"

The importance of preparedness has already been stressed, but remember, the prospect has nothing prepared. His/her answer may take a couple of minutes, so the salesperson must exercise discipline and wait in silence. Once the prospect responds, the inherent tension diminishes since there is now a true dialogue.

This new information must be internalized and responded to immediately. At this juncture, I use the reflective question. This question takes information given and sends it back in the form of a question and, at the same time, restates a prospect's response more favorably. Using the first open-ended question from above, the prospect's response might be: "Well, when I have a problem, I want someone here immediately." The reflective question response could be, "If I understand you correctly, when you have a breakdown, you want the most capable technician to get you running as soon as humanly possible, is that right? Can I also assume that your preference is to reduce these occurrences?"

This not only buys some time to think, but it tells the prospect you're hearing their message. Once the dialogue is opened, the salesperson has options. You can elect to gather even more information with closed-ended questions. If so, I now turn them toward the assumptive side, or questions I already know the answers to. For example, "Are you budgeting to replace the HVAC systems?" Of course, nobody is, but this sends a message that it might be considered. Another option would be to continue with open-ended questions: "Could you tell me about your energy management programs?"

This is the same assumptive concept, only using the open-ended question. The salesperson is establishing voids in the present program without being offensive.

In using the step-at-a-time selling approach, each step requires a close. While we are not expecting a signed agreement at the conclusion of the first call presentation, there are clearly defined goals — the ultimate goal being to get permission to make a final presentation to the decision making body.

Supplemental goals would be, permission to survey, and access to energy bills and maintenance data. This is when I use the fourth type of question, the directive question. Since it's used only for the close of the first call I only use it once. I invariably incorporate these five words, "if we could….would you?" In dialogue it would be, "Mr./Ms. Jones, if we could show you a way to reduce your energy bills, increase tenant comfort, reduce breakdowns and provide total investment protection without increasing your total cost of ownership, would you be willing to take the next step?" The answer is almost guaranteed to be one of two: "I guess I would be foolish not to," or "what does it cost to take the next step?" Either way you've won. The only cost to take the next step is to provide us with the required information, and establish a time for the final presentation.

I have developed two pages of possible questions to be used on a first call. If you want them, drop me an email. It does take some memorization, but the ends justify the means. Mastering this technique will allow you to take full control of the first call and orchestrate a presentation that has a natural conclusion.

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.