If you look at the industry 20 years ago, pool sales were based on a whole bunch of templates. It was very much a menu of variations on standard models. Now, it's an entirely different game — as pools have evolved into comprehensive outdoor environments, the process of selling has evolved, too.

In the broadest sense, sales and design go hand in hand. The best salespeople have creative minds and emit positive energy that ingratiates them to clients. However, I think it's equally important for a salesperson to be able to express that creativity through digital design tools such as Pool Studio or AutoCad.

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(I personally believe computer-aided design is far superior to hand drawings. In fact, if I showed a prospective client a hand rendering, my competitors with computer-generated renderings would have a distinct advantage. We'll cover design software in depth in a future installment of this series.)

The integration of sales and design is also important to volume builders, who offer far more options than they once did. In a way, we have come to the point where almost all pools are custom, at least to an extent. There are, of course, differences in the way that high-end builders sell compared to their volume counterparts, but volume salespeople still need to make an emotional connection with their prospective customers.

Those who abide by more traditional sales methods are trained to always walk away with a contract. By contrast, I've learned that affluent homeowners don't like to be pushed and are more likely to look elsewhere when they feel pressured. In reality, they are far more likely to buy when they've been educated. Our clients always want to work with someone they can trust who knows what they're talking about.

There are qualities in an effective salesperson that are not entirely teachable. You can learn the job, sure, but the confident personality, raw talent and strong presence are inherent traits.

Successful salespeople know how to close their mouths and listen and also when to open up and talk. For some, that awareness comes naturally, and those are people we look for in the hiring process. The good sales professional knows that when you ask questions, you're leading the client to a heightened emotional state.

KNOWING HOW

Any list of characteristics for good salespeople should include an understanding of what it takes to design and build a swimming pool and all the structures that surround it. As basic as that sounds, that can be a real challenge — after all, there is no college degree you can earn in swimming pool construction.

Oftentimes, homeowners will hire a landscape architect who has a degree and some construction knowledge. But truth be told, most of those professionals didn't start out wanting to be pool builders and may or may not be fully versed on how it's done.

More commonly, traditional pool builders are often relatives of those who have been in the business a long time. They see that it can be a lucrative — and mostly fun — business. You don't have to wear a suit and tie and usually don't work regular hours. That's a certain type of person, perhaps a bit less structured than most, who can quickly respond to whatever the day throws at them. These personalities are great for the pool industry, where every day is different.

As for the know-how, there's really no shortcut to experience and proper training. Therefore, these personalities have to be teachable and have the motivation to learn something new. Because the learning curve takes time, it's often advantageous to have your salespeople start out in a lesser position at a lower salary.

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In our company, we start salespeople out as sales assistants — or more accurately, design assistants — and keep them there until we're confident in their level of knowledge. That means having them sit in on sales meetings, letting them watch the process unfolds and later spending quality time on the jobsite.

We don't teach using a handbook because the only way to learn this job is to take part in the process with real clients and their projects. You have to know the tile, the gunite, the plumbing, the steel and the equipment.

The nice thing is that in pool sales, you're never going to spend all your time making calls. That means our design assistants have an opportunity to visit job sites. Still, the most important training comes during the sales meetings where salespeople-in-training develop a comfort level working directly with homeowners.

Finding people who are willing to go through that process with the idea of greater rewards later on is an absolute requirement.

THE TRUST FACTOR

More important still is the ability to work with people. It's a rare client that asks about the grade of steel or whether the plumbing will have 45s or 90s. Yes, that knowledge is important when designing and generating a proposal, but the real job is to sell what the project will look like when it's finished.

Naturally, it helps to have an engaging personality and the ability to inspire trust. As strange as it might sound, the reality is that those qualities come into play in a big way when it comes to relating to wives. A majority of wives we work with stay at home during the day, and it's important that both the husband and wife are comfortable with the sales team, given that they (along with a host of workers) will be essentially invading their lives while the project moves forward.

The fact is, if you leave a meeting and the wife doesn't feel comfortable with you, it doesn't matter how great your design is or what kind of reputation you have. An uncomfortable wife will almost always torpedo the sale.

Part of that crucial trust-building is the salesperson's ability to answer questions and educate the client. It's a very different process than selling a car, for example, or some type of retail product. We are selling custom work, which is always particular to a given client. Developing a dialogue centered on what the customer is really looking for is the main job for a sales person.

In effect, good salespeople are expert collaborators who know how to ask questions and make creative suggestions. And you have to respond to both clients and the site itself. You have to know the questions to ask, which are strategic in nature, designed to not only guide the design work, but also build trust and loyalty.

We also talk about design fees, which is one of the best ways to build credibility. When you place a price on the design process, the clients will place a greater value on your work. It establishes a level of professionalism and makes them take you seriously. Good salespeople are comfortable working on that level. They believe in their skills and carry themselves with that confidence.

WHAT WE'RE SELLING

Finally, it's important to understand what you're selling. You're not selling the concrete or plumbing, but instead an experience that will hopefully transform your customers' lives.

You're selling a lifestyle, a getaway. You're selling visual beauty, and for some people, you're selling status. Effective salespeople realize that they're ultimately making an emotional connection based on optimism and the desire for luxury. If you don't connect on that level, it's tough or even impossible to be successful.

You have to make people feel special based on the questions you ask, and subsequently, the design you provide. Whether you're building a $40,000 pool or a $2 million dollar project, you have to inject features into the design that make your clients feel like they have something that no one else has.

When you tap into that well of emotions homeowners have when they seek a beautiful backyard, then they're going to respond favorably to the design. In fact, that's how you can motivate someone to increase their budget. Effective salespeople generate a desire for the product and many homeowners will find the funds for those elements that stoke their positive feelings.

That's what great salespeople do. They build trust and make emotional connections.

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