In their book Start Your Own Busines s, the staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. guides you through the critical steps to starting your business, then supports you in surviving the first three years as a business owner. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer some strategies you can use to improve your sales presentations and close more sales.

When your cold calls and follow-up efforts have paid off, and you've made an appointment to visit a prospect in person and make a sales presentation, how can you make sure your presentation’s a success? These steps can help:

Before the presentation

1. Know your customer’s business. Potential clients expect you to know their business, customers, and competition as well as you know your own product or service. Study your customer’s industry. Know its problems and trends. Find out who the company’s biggest competitors are. Some research tools include the company’s annual report, brochures, catalogs, and newsletters; trade publications; chamber of commerce directories; and the internet.

2. Write out your sales presentation. Making a sales presentation isn’t something you do on the fly. Always use a written presentation. The basic structure of any sales presentation includes five key points: building rapport with your prospect, introducing the business topic, asking questions to better understand your prospect’s needs, summarizing your key selling points, and closing the sale. Think about the three major selling points of your product or service. Develop leading questions to probe your customer’s reactions and needs.

3. Make sure you're talking to the right person. This seems elementary, but many salespeople neglect to do it. Then, at the last minute, the buyer wriggles off the hook by saying they need a boss’s, spouse’s, or partner’s approval. When you're setting the appointment, always ask “Are you the one I should be talking to, or are there others who'll be making the buying decision?”

In the customer’s office

1. Build rapport. Before you start discussing business, build rapport with your prospect. To accomplish this, do some homework. Find out if you have a colleague in common. Has the prospect’s company been in the news lately? Are they interested in sports? Get a little insight into the company and the individual so you can make the rapport genuine.

2. Ask questions. Don’t jump into a canned sales spiel. The most effective way to sell is to ask the prospect questions and see where they lead you. (Of course, your questions are carefully structured to elicit the prospect’s needs—ones that your product just happens to be able to fill.)

Ask questions that require more than a yes or no response and that deal with more than just costs, price, procedures, and the technical aspects of the prospect’s business. Most important, ask questions that will reveal the prospect’s motivation to purchase, their problems and needs, and their decision-making processes. Don’t be afraid to ask a client why they feel a certain way. That’s how you’ll get to understand your customers.

3. Take notes. Don’t rely on your memory to remind you of what’s important to your prospect. Ask upfront if it’s all right for you to take notes during your sales presentation. Write down key points you can refer to later during your presentation.

4. Be sure to write down objections. This shows your prospect you're truly listening. In this way, you can specifically answer objections by showing how the customer will benefit from your product or service. It could be, for instance, by saving money, raising productivity, increasing employee motivation, or increasing their company’s name recognition.

5. Learn to listen. Salespeople who do all the talking during a presentation not only bore the prospect but also generally lose the sale. A good rule of thumb is to listen 70 percent of the time and talk 30 percent of the time. Don’t interrupt. It’s tempting to step in and tell the prospect something you think is vitally important. Before you speak, ask yourself if what you’re about to say is really necessary.

When you do speak, focus on asking questions. Pretend you're Barbara Walters interviewing a movie star: Ask questions; then shut up. You can improve your listening skills by taking notes and observing your prospect’s body language, not jumping to conclusions.

6. Answer objections with “feel,” “felt,” and “found.” Don’t argue when a prospect says “I’m not interested,” “I just bought one,” or “I don’t have time right now.” Simply say “I understand how you feel. A lot of my present customers felt the same way. But when they found out how much time they saved by using our product, they were amazed.” Then ask for an appointment. Prospects like to hear about other people who've been in a similar situation.

7. Probe deeper. If a prospect tells you “We’re looking for cost savings and efficiency,” will you immediately tell them how your product meets their need for cost savings and efficiency? A really smart salesperson won’t—they'll ask more questions and probe deeper: “I understand why that's important. Can you give me a specific example?” Asking for more information—and listening to the answers—enables you to better position your product and show you understand the client’s needs.

8. Find the “hot button.” A customer may have a long list of needs, but there's usually one “hot button” that will get the person to buy. The key to the hot button is that it's an emotional, not practical, need—a need for recognition, love, or reinforcement. Suppose you're selling health club memberships. For a prospect who's planning a trip to Hawaii in two months, the hot button is likely to be losing a few pounds and looking good in a bikini. For a prospect who just found out they have high blood pressure, the hot button could be the health benefits of exercise. For a busy young mother, the hot button may be the chance to get away from the kids for a few hours a week and reduce stress.

9. Eliminate objections. When a prospect raises an objection, don’t immediately jump in with a response. Instead, show empathy by saying “Let’s explore your concerns.” Ask for more details about the objection. You need to isolate the true objection so you can handle it. Here are some ways to do that:

a. Offer a choice. “Is it the delivery time or the financing you're concerned about?”

b. Get to the heart of the matter. “When you say you want to think about it, what specifically did you want to think about?”

c. Work toward a solution. Every sale should be a win-win deal, so you may need to compromise to close the deal: “I’ll waive the delivery charge if you agree to the purchase.”

As you get more experience, you’ll become familiar with different objections. Maintain a list of common objections and ways you have successfully dealt with them.

10. Close the sale. There's no magic to closing the sale. If you've followed all the previous steps, all you should have to do is ask for the customer’s order. However, some salespeople make the mistake of simply not asking for the final decision. It’s as if they forget what their goal is!

For some, “closing” sounds too negative. If you’re one of them, try changing your thinking to something more positive, such as “deciding.” As you talk with the customer, build in the close by having fun with it. Say something like “So how many do you want? We have it in a rainbow of colors. Do you want them all?” Make sure to ask them several times in a fun, nonthreatening way; you’re leading them to make the decision.