Between 1994 and 1996, Donna Bade Shirey and her husband, Riley, grew their business from $543,000 to $1.8 million. Encouraged by their success, the owners of Shirey Contracting decided on a more formidable objective: taking the Issaquah, Wash., company to $5 million.

Shirey knew she needed to ignite sales to reach her revenue goals. She had read books by Tom Hopkins and Phil Rea (a contributor to this magazine) and had incorporated some sales techniques, but she sought formal training. On the recommendation of a fellow remodeler, Shirey spent $8,000 on weekly sales training through Sandler Systems, based in Stevenson, Md. She's happy with the results.

When she wanted a formalized sales method, Donna Bade Shirey (right) turned to Sandler Systems. She credits the training for helping boost her company's sales to $3 million. Using her training and Sandler cassette tapes, she's now schooling her new sales consultant, Carolyn Thomas (rear), in the techniques of the popular system.
Brian Smale When she wanted a formalized sales method, Donna Bade Shirey (right) turned to Sandler Systems. She credits the training for helping boost her company's sales to $3 million. Using her training and Sandler cassette tapes, she's now schooling her new sales consultant, Carolyn Thomas (rear), in the techniques of the popular system.

"There's a consistency now," Shirey says. "Sandler has affected our business. The system gives you a way to get to either yes or no, vs. 'I want to think it over.'"

This year, she expects the company to bring in $3 million, more than halfway to its three-year goal of $5 million.

Unlike Shirey, most contractors use their own "system" to sell, though they may not call it a system. According to a Remodeling Reader Panel survey, 38% of remodelers don't use formal sales systems. About 23% use Sandler techniques, 15% use Phil Rea's systems, and 7% rely on Dale Carnegie sales training. About 5% use systems promoted by Dave Yoho, who, like Rea, is a former remodeler. Other systems used include those promoted by Brian Tracy or Max Sax.

Remodeling interviewed users of popular systems and those who sell them to see how, and if, the systems work.

Gaining control

Many remodelers look at sales as the dirty part of their business, with its huckster roots and "Tin Man" associations. They tend to think that sales systems, which train in technique and behavior modification to alter a salesperson's approach to customers, are canned, formulaic, aggressive, or push too hard for contracts. Remodeling, they argue, is sold on relationships, and sales techniques tend to be soft and customer-friendly.

Indeed, some remodelers are successful without systems (see "Selling Without a Formal System"). Others tried to advance with a sales system but moved backward instead (see "When a Sales System Doesn't Work"). But to hear testimonials like Shirey's, or of the success of Howard Walker -- a St. Simons, Ga., remodeler who improved close ratios to 1 in 3 using Rea's techniques -- sales systems have turned many businesses around. Three factors are responsible:

Sales systems are systematic. Owners know what works sale-to-sale because they, or their sales staff, use the same approach every time. "Tragically, most people who aren't organized stay unorganized in the sales end," says Dave Yoho of Dave Yoho Associates of Fairfax, Va.

Systems promote discipline. "I don't have to rely on how I feel today," says Rea, of Phil Rea Associates in Newport News, Va. "If I went on an appointment now, I'd fall into my system and forget I've got a sinus headache."

A system puts you in charge. By having your own system, you don't resort to one that is proven -- the customer's. As Sandler materials argue, prospects lie, want free expertise, and are bound to mislead you about intentions. Notes one Sandler handout, "You will default to the prospect's system and find yourself at Wimp Junction."

"In remodeling," says Phil Rea, "people just show up. They let homeowners control the situation."

"A system overpowers imagination,"adds Yoho. "If you don't know what to say next, you're going to use your imagination, and that's going to get you in trouble."

Many people are afraid of selling because they don't understand the process, and a system provides confidence through methodology, says Dave Mattson, Sandler Systems vice president. "They've had bad salespeople call on them," he says of those who fear selling. "They don't want to do to others what they've found distasteful done to them."

Shirey says the control gained through the Sandler system is empowering. "If someone hasn't called me back, I use Sandler techniques. I say, 'John, I have your file on my desk, what should I do with it?'" "Having a system makes the sales process flow a lot easier," says Walker, of Helping Hands Construction. "I would stumble around a lot, talk about a project, then come back and talk about the company. I try not to make it sound like a canned routine. Part of that process is to make it personable."

Common ground

Although promoters of systems point out differences -- which seem to rest in how to approach the customer -- the systems have a lot in common. Much of what systems teach has to do with choosing what to say and how and when to say it.

Yoho has a six-step system: Sell the appointment, sell your way in, sell yourself, sell your company, sell your product/service, sell your price. Rea's "Magic Card" sketches a similar step-by-step "Full Routine": Approach (show how professional we are); Warm-up (get them to like and trust me); Qualify (find out how much they want to invest); Present (show why they should buy products from me); and Close (ask for their business, and have a ready answer for objections).

Sandler takes a "submarine" approach. As you advance, you seal compartments representing sales process segments so prospects can't return or run ahead, as they can in what Sandler calls "more traditional" systems. Sandler's steps include bonding/rapport, making up-front contracts, finding the prospect's "pain," determining budget, making a decision, fulfilling the promise, and post selling.