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  • Writer's pictureDominic Testo



Sammy and Sally are inside sales specialists. They work side-by-side at a distributor who specializes in construction materials that are usually sold to medium-sized companies and individual contractors. Most of their business involves selling alternative products to well-known brands. These well-known brands have longer lead times and typically come at a higher cost than the alternative products or “offsets” that Sammy and Sally sell. For that reason, their website sees plenty of Google searches from prospects who want to cut costs and diversify their supply chain. This is a nice spot to be in if you are Sammy and Sally; however, they each handle these leads very differently.

Sally believes that getting free samples into the prospect’s hands as quickly as possible is the key to closing the sale. She frequently emails and calls customer service, asking that samples be sent to these potential customers ASAP. In moving so quickly, however, she rarely asks more than a few questions before approving the samples. She is confident that free samples will turn into business – and she knows it takes some time for contractors to test samples and place orders. Sally doesn’t worry that she hasn’t seen many of these prospects come back and set up accounts yet.

Sally’s counterpart, Sammy, has a much different process when it comes to dealing with contractors who arrive from the website. You see, Sammy has been in the construction materials distribution industry for 15 years. He’s worked for two similar companies previously and understands not only how many of these contractors operate, but how they handle problems. Consequently, Sammy has memorized a list of questions that he asks before deciding that a prospect has earned a free sample.

With his experience, Sammy can spot a contractor who ran out of specialty tape for a job and needs just one more roll. The big distributors only sell specialty tape in cases of 24 rolls – and small business owners hate buying a large quantity that they really don’t need. These are the same type of “prospects” – or, as best-selling author Mark Hunter would call them, “suspects” – to whom Sally "sells" samples. She keeps hanging onto the false hope that these “suspects” will become long-term customers. In reality, however, there isn’t even a chance.

Free customer samples can come in many forms, including demos, materials, trials, test drives, short-time memberships, guest passes, and so on. Early in my career, my ears perked up whenever I was asked to send a “sample”. Often, this request would happen very early in the process – and I would race to get shipping information to customer service and ask them to send it UPS RED ASAP because this lead was hot, hot, hot. That’s exactly what Sally was doing without making the prospect earn the sample. She was getting “happy ears” because her prospects knew they could get her off their backs by asking for samples or mislead her by asking for small volumes of free stuff they needed.

Sally was not asking deep qualification questions and ended up with a pipeline full of unqualified prospects. This led to a poor year and a sales manager who asked a lot of questions. Sammy did the exact opposite of Sally and sent out very few samples. The difference was Sammy’s policy on samples. Sammy had a great list of questions and made the customer answer them completely and correctly before sending out samples. If he thought the customer didn’t “deserve” the sample, he priced them out at the company minimum order and didn’t make exceptions.

At the end of the year, Sally sent almost 10 times as many samples as Sammy and closed only two new significant customers. By comparison, Sammy closed 12 new significant customers who fit the company’s target market very well.


The lesson learned here is short and sweet. The number of samples sent, meetings set, demos given, test drives driven, etc. do not show up on sales reports. Only closed sales and real money from new customers do! If you spend your time on unqualified prospects and use anything less than a rigorous qualification process, you will have limited success in sales. Keep a tight focus on who your real target customers are and the problems they need to have in order for your product to benefit them. If you can do that, you will win – and so will your customers. That’s the key to long-term relationships and repeat customers.


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