When it comes to sales, there's definitely consensus among seasoned company owners and sales managers about what it takes to be a star and to stay a star.

Slow but Steady

Most sales managers have seen the person who has a fantastic month, then a subpar month, then another chart-topping month, followed by another 30-day slump. Up and down it goes, but not for long, says Brian Brock, sales and marketing manager at Hullco Exteriors, a Chattanooga, Tenn., home improvement company. "In the long haul, they burn out and fail," he says. "They get sick of trying to ride that roller-coaster." Inconsistent results are the end product of inconsistent practices, Brock observes. "They get on a high and feed off it. They make some good money, then they get lazy." A pattern forms and the up-one-month-down-the-next rep can't seem to get out from under it.

By contrast, Brock says, top producers plan. They know what they're going to bring in this month, next month, and the month after next month. They know how many appointments they need to run to produce X volume of sales. "It's amazing to me the number of people who don't have sales goals," Brock says. "They have close ratio goals and these other measures, but not a sales goal." Brock meets one-on-one with salespeople to help them plan out monthly goals for the year. Rather than dictate what they're expected to bring in, he allows sales reps to set their own goals. That has helped Hullco increase company sales in double digits for three years in a row.

Your 'A' Game

"If you're not out there being passionate about the needs you address, the products you're selling, and the installation your company provides, the homeowner will read that, they will feel that," says Gary Kearns, vice president of sales and marketing for Kearns Brothers, a home improvement company in Dearborn, Mich. Salespeople, Kearns points out, need the same kind of passion that performers on a stage or in a sports arena have. "If you pay top dollar to hear Kid Rock, and he's got a cold and can't sing that well, how are you feeling?" Not good. And it's difficult to bring passion to every appointment when you're running two or three a day. To "get yourself pumped," Kearns suggests listening to tapes of home improvement sales trainers such as Dave Yoho or Phil Rea, or doing what he does, which is to listen to loud rock music on the radio. Aim to reach the point where, like Roy Scheider in the movie All That Jazz, you can look in the mirror, snap your fingers, and activate that part of the brain that's focused and high-energy. "He'd snap his fingers and say: 'It's showtime!' Then go out and give it his all," Kearns says. "You've got to be on. You're a professional. This is how you make your money."

Want Fries With That?

Selling step-by-step according to a system sounds elementary. Everybody does it, right? Wrong. Many companies don't. If the owner sells, he doesn't need a system, says Scott Siegal, owner of Maggio Roofing, in the Washington, D.C., area. Siegal is also owner and president of Certified Contractors Network (CCN), a peer-driven consulting organization, which for years has sponsored sales training boot camps. At those week-long camps, wannabe salespeople learn a system by memorization and role-playing.

Siegal became a convert in 1997, when he went to a CCN boot camp. Minus a selling system, a rep is left to work off just his or her charm. That's what Siegal did before he learned CCN's system from its late founder, Richard Kaller.

"It was kind of like schmoozing," Siegal says. "You dazzle 'em with your product knowledge. Develop some rapport." Then hope for the best. The best meaning that the homeowner didn't blind-side you with an objection you weren't prepared for.

The beauty of a sales system, Siegal says, is that the homeowner is never going to say something you don't expect to hear or that you're unprepared to answer. "It's quantifiable. You know exactly what's going to happen once you uncover people's pain and find out what their fear really is," he says. Using a system, "you can certainly close 30% to 40% of leads consistently at a reasonable price." Siegal says that it's easy for company owners to sell because they're selling themselves, "and that's heartfelt." But homeowners implicitly distrust a salesman, i.e., company representative. A selling system lets the salesperson overcome that distrust, take control of the circumstances and the situation, and ask for the job that homeowners have already convinced themselves they need.

Runaway Train

"I'm not that smart," says Mike Damora, sales manager for Roeland Home Improvers, in Rockaway, N.J. "I just know my lines." So how do you remember your lines? Damora says that many times he's seen new salespeople tear it up in their first 90 days. Then, mysteriously, they falter. What happens? "They start taking shortcuts," Damora says. "You've shown a guy a selling system and he doesn't know anything but what you've told him. He's driven on enthusiasm." But after the fourth month, Damora says, there's a dip. And when that happens, salespeople often want to look anywhere but in the mirror for a reason. "It's the leads, the economy, the war in Iraq, the weather. It's Christmas, it's Halloween. Actually," Damora says, "it's you." The stellar players are those who not only know a sales system but embrace role-playing and other forms of training so that they always get better. That's the salesperson who's constantly looking at himself and the way he sells so that he can improve. "What do you see baseball players doing 45 minutes before every game? They're practicing their batting. You might think: I'm paying the guy 8 gazillion dollars a year; shouldn't he know how to bat? And your star players: in the off-season, what do they do? They train."

More Than You Know

If you don't know what your product does, or why it's superior, it's hard to tell homeowners why they should buy it and trust your company with the job. Product knowledge is crucial. New salespeople are taught it. And soon, if they're willing, they know a few things about the product they're selling.

But there's more you can know that will be a big advantage at the kitchen table. Steven Jones, owner of Tulsa Renews, a siding and window company in Tulsa, Okla., was a $3 million seller at different times in a career. A career that began with installing windows and siding as a finish carpenter, progressed through managing installations, and went on to selling and sales management before he started a company of his own. Jones suggests that salespeople spend time on a jobsite — and not just standing around watching crews move windows into place and doing the caulking. When Jones was sales manager for another company, he had two recruits come along and all three worked installing a fiber-cement siding job. One cut boards and the other worked on the tear-off. The next day, they went back. Knowing the process, and language, of installation, talking installation best practices in the home, really wows that customer. "Know what a stud is," Jones says. "What a base plate is. What a header is." Chances are good that whoever you're selling against will not know. Some background in the construction process, gained with first-hand experience, and brought into your presentation, is a big advantage. Jones suggests that owners or sales managers send new salespeople to jobsites to help out. "If they get a full eight hours on a construction site," he says, "they understand how difficult it is, working in that environment where the homeowner may be present."

Hear Me Now

Five years ago Jake Jacobson, the vice president of sales for Premier Window & Building, in Owings Mills, Md., had a contractor salesperson out to his own house. The aim was to get an estimate on cleaning a chimney. The salesperson, running through a checklist, asked Jacobson, "How old is this house?" One hundred and one years, was the answer. Without missing a beat, the next question was: "And are you the original owner?"

That reinforced Jacobson's idea, based on more than 30 years of home improvement sales experience, that the ability to listen and really hear what the prospect is saying is more important than anything else if you want to be a sales superstar. "Good salespeople have the gift of gab," he says. "Great salespeople — the top closers — are good listeners," he says. They not only ask a lot of questions, but they pay attention to the answers and use the answers to develop a strategy for each sale. "Customers like to talk," he adds. Unfortunately, some salespeople like to talk even more. And when no one's listening, the salesperson is the one who loses out because he doesn't get a contract. Listening, Jacobson points out, is more than hearing words. It's paying attention. Reading body language and maintaining eye contact at key moments, are all part of engaging homeowners so that you can convince them you'll solve their problem. Homeowners, Jacobson says, "will tell you how they want to be sold." For example, "If you go to a house and the guy says: 'It's my wife you want to talk to, she's the one who wants new windows,' that means he's the one you have to convince."

Up Close & Personal

Of course the point of listening is more than just about gaining useful information. The consistent closer, the super salesman, becomes "not just a salesman but a trusted advisor," says Ger Ronan, owner of Yankee Home Improvement, in Northampton, Mass. And the way you become that trusted adviser, he says, is, in a word, empathy. What is empathy? Wikipedia defines it as "the capacity to recognize ... shared feelings" in others. Elsewhere empathy is explained as "experiencing vicariously another's thought, feeling, or attitude." Above all it's personal. It's the ability to see the sales call, and the problem that prompted it, through the eyes of the homeowner. Ronan's example: "Salespeople get nervous and they like to tell stories," he says. "One way to empathize is not to trump the homeowner's story. So, for instance, if the homeowner starts talking about his vacation to Cape Cod, that's not the point where I want to open up about taking my kid on a trip to China."

—Jim Cory is editor of REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR.