Today we are going to look at the secrets of a successful sales interview, a process that begins with what you believe. But even if you believe with all your heart that what we do can change a life, you can still struggle.

So why does one advisor have interview after interview, making an occasional sale, but struggles, while another writes case after case, seemingly selling to everyone he or she meets?

Here’s the difference–and it is counterintuitive. The one who gets the business knows how to say no. In other words, before you meet with a prospect, you should already have determined whether he or she is a qualified prospect. If the prospect is not, you will politely refuse an appointment.

Qualified prospects have five attributes:

(1) They must be willing to meet with you on a favorable basis.

(2) They must have a need for your products or services.

(3) They must have the money to invest in your products or services.

(4) They must have a sense of urgency.

(5) They must be confident that you can help them.

If prospects fail in any one area, then they are not qualified and you proceed at your peril.

Now let’s examine how each stage of the sales process–Approach, Problem, Solution, and Decision–works. In my experience, the best time to meet a person is when a triggering event occurs. Until prospective clients are convinced they have a problem, you will never get much beyond hello until they see you as the one who can provide a solution to their challenge.

A triggering event is any event that occurs in a person’s life that makes the individual realize that he or she needs help. It may be the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a career or business change, the purchase of property, the writing of a will or trust, a divorce or marriage. The more time you spend in the Approach stage, the better chance you have of uncovering a triggering event.

Focus on determining whether a prospect is qualified. Does the prospect have a need? Can you see the prospect on a favorable basis? Does the prospect have money to invest in your products or services? Is anything keeping the prospect from working with you?

Often, the big producer will determine if a prospect is qualified when making initial contact on the phone, but often qualifying occurs in the first face-to-face interview. Either way, if the prospect is not qualified, you need to know how to honorably refuse.

An honorable refusal is a polite way to tell the prospect that he or she is not qualified. A refusal should never be condescending or flat, nor should it be absolute. Leave the prospect with a remnant of hope that maybe one day you might be able to do business.

Let’s assume that Mr. and Mrs. Smith have been referred to you by an existing client. The first thing to do is to ask the client to call Mr. and Mrs. Smith and ask them if they would object to talking to you about their current economic situation. This is critical: If you cannot see this client on a favorable basis, you’re wasting your time.

Then get as much information about the Smith family from the referrer as you can to determine whether the prospect is qualified. A referral of this nature establishes your credibility with both the referrer and the prospect.

Once you have information, call the prospect. Your goal at this stage is twofold: first, to determine that the prospect has a need; and second, to ascertain that the prospect would not object to meeting with you.

This requires three things:

1. Careful preparation

2. Good questions

3. Close listening

Bud Jordan, one of the most successful financial service professionals I ever met, taught me several rules to live by when talking with prospects on the phone, including:

? Have a goal. Personal goal-setting is the strongest force in the world. Every meeting, phone call and interview needs a goal. If you don’t know where you’re going, you will end up somewhere else.

? Use the 10-minute rule. Most people are hesitant to spend more than 10 minutes on the phone, so don’t waste the first seven talking about the weather. Get to the point and establish rapport quickly. Remember, your goal is to get an appointment with a qualified prospect–so get to it quickly.

? Make “no” the right answer. I do not know why, but it is much easier for people to say no than to say yes. When making an appointment, try using these two phrases (1) “Would you have any objection . . .” and (2) “I can appreciate that . . . .”

The first expression, “Would you have any objection,” is disarming because the correct answer is always “no.” “I can appreciate that” is a way to overcome objections by politely agreeing with the client and then offering another option.

Here are some ideas on setting the stage for the meeting. First, be in control.

? If you’re meeting at a restaurant, be there early and wait for the prospect to arrive. Ask the hostess to seat you at a table rather than a booth, and then sit catty-corner. If there is more than one person, say a husband and wife, sit catty-corner to the one you spoke to and have the other sit across from you.

? If you’re meeting at your office, decide if you want to meet in the conference room or your office. If you meet in the conference room, have the client and the spouse sit together on one side of the table with you at the head and closest to the person you made the appointment with.

If you are meeting in your office, do not sit behind your desk. If you can sit only behind a desk, move the meeting to the conference room or another place that allows you to sit side-by-side or catty-corner.

This may seem petty, but how and where you sit is very important: It sets a tone. You want the prospects or clients to feel they are in a setting that is comfortable.

Once everyone is situated and the small talk is over, the first question I ask is, “How can I help you?” If people are willing to come to you, they either want or need something.

The goal of the second stage of the sales process is to discover what’s on the client’s mind–the triggering event. In other words, why are we here? It is more important at this phase to determine a client’s wants before going to what he or she might “need.”

The better you do at qualifying prospects, discovering their goals and developing what problem they want to solve, the easier it is for clients to understand and execute your recommendations. Indeed, when you have done your job correctly in the beginning, the last two steps simply take care of themselves.

During the recommendation stage, spend time making complex ideas simple. Use a white board or a yellow pad to draw a picture and summarize your recommendations on a single sheet.

All the while, keep an eye on your prospect’s body language. When you see negative body language while a prospect is listening to you, get the prospect to start talking. Otherwise, you may well have a prospect with a confidence problem in you.

Be ready to answer objections. This is when you really need to listen closely, because objections often tell you whether you have communicated your message.

The most important thing you can do in an interview is to tell the truth. The reason we lie is fear, and the key to conquering fear is knowledge. The products we represent do not need our help, but you need to know what makes them work. If you understand why a product has certain fees and expenses, for example, you will not be afraid to explain them. Thus, the more you understand how things work, the easier it will be for you to explain things–and to tell the truth.

Donald F. White is founder and principal of Treasure Coast Financial Services, Stuart, Fla. You may e-mail him at dwhite@tcfin.com. This is an abridged version of a presentation he gave at the MDRT annual meeting in Vancouver.