When salespeople bring a contract back to Nature-view Home Energy Products, in Pittsburgh, the office manager opens the envelope and shakes out the deposit check. No check? That could be a problem.

Most of the time a check does fall out and that's because, owner Rick Edwards says, company policy requires a deposit. But asking for the deposit is neither simple nor easy. “Successful salespeople,” Edwards says, “will work as hard for a deposit as they will for that order in the first place.” And without the deposit, many homeowners perceive that they haven't really made an agreement. “Even if they've signed a contract,” Edwards says, “they feel like they can tell you to take a hike.”

PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE Asking for the deposit can be like asking for the order all over again — unless you make it so smooth and matter-of-fact that it appears almost seamless. Just as with asking for the sale, “make it a big event, and you're in trouble,” says Tom Capizzi, owner of Capizzi Home Improvement, in Cotuit, Mass., who as a salesperson sold more than $3 million of work some years.

Assume, he says, that the bigger the build-up, the greater the pushback. Capizzi says that he studies the printed payment schedule in advance. “I look up from my calculations and say [to the homeowners]: “We normally do the first third of that amount as a deposit today, the next third when the project starts, and the last third on completion.” A printed payment schedule, he says, “gets it off the salesman's chest” by making it the company's, and the industry's, standard. Resistance by one or either of the parties, he adds, shows they're not totally sold.

A MILLION WAYS Edwards points out that it's important to be flexible in asking. He recently sold a combination job involving a sunroom, a deck, and a roof on the house for $53,000. “I said: We take a third with the order, a third when the work starts, and a third on completion. She said: When is ‘the order.' I said: That would be now.”

The deposit — $17,000 — was probably more than the homeowners had available, since they had just bought windows and a patio door from another contractor. It was, they told Edwards, the biggest check they'd ever written. So he told them that they could pay whatever they were “comfortable” with. Because, while it's important to get a deposit, he says, “You don't want to go for the big down payment and end up getting a cancellation.”