| Special to USA TODAYLos Angeles cocktail small business thrives during COVID-19 pandemicSabrina Minks and Danielle Motor, co-founders of Sunset Boulevardier, boosted their revenues during the pandemic despite the closures of bars.Andrea Kramar and Angela Blakely, USA TODAYIf you own a small business, sooner or later you have to make sales. Some entrepreneurs view the prospect of a sales call with the same fear and loathing as having to face an IRS audit. Even if you have salespeople on your team, some customers – especially big customers and clients – need to see the owner before they’ll sign on the dotted line. So you’re going to have to get out there – or on the Zoom call – and make the pitch. Take heart: Sales is a craft, not an art. It can be learned. Here are a few keys to successful sales:ListenNo sales skill is more important than the ability to listen. A great salesperson hears what the customer wants – their concerns and priorities.When calling on a customer, it’s tempting to immediately launch into your sales pitch, but by listening, you better understand how your product or service meets the customer’s needs and desires. Don’t just tell the customer what you think they’ll be interested in or stick to your standard sales patter.Ask questionsYou can’t listen to a customer unless you get them talking. Ask relevant questions to draw them out: “What do you like in your current solution?” “What don’t you like?” “What features are the most important?”Small biz assistance: Here are the new government efforts to help small businessesExample of success: Shaken by COVID, a pair of LA bartenders found a way to stir up more business for craft cocktails during the pandemicIncreasing sales: How small businesses moved online to survive the pandemic, including one that gained Oprah as a fanDon’t just ask questions to qualify them as a hot prospect, such as, “Are you ready to buy a car today?”Tell them what they get, not what you doWhen I was first in business, I went to many networking events, and I was struck by how many business owners told others HOW their product or service (or business) worked, not about the benefits. Customers don’t want to know the ins and outs of your business; they want to know how you meet their needs. Appreciate the benefits of your product or serviceGenuine enthusiasm is contagious. If you truly believe you’re offering the customer something worthwhile, you’ll be a more effective salesperson. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in your product, you shouldn’t be selling it.Don’t oversellIt’s tempting to land a sale by telling the customer anything and everything they want to hear, but that’s almost certain to lead to customers’ being dissatisfied or disappointed. An acquaintance who owned a successful chain of moderately priced hotels told me his strategy was to “promise customers a Chevy, then deliver a Cadillac.” By underpromising and overdelivering, he built an exceptionally loyal customer base.Be honestLying is not only unethical and possibly illegal; it’s a surefire way to lose customers and potential customers. You may even find yourself facing a lawsuit.Compare, don’t criticize your competitionYes, I know, your product or service is so much better than your competitor’s, and they’re really not very nice people either. But disparaging your competition makes you appear malicious. Instead, factually – and positively – compare your benefits and value to those of your competitor.Build relationshipsOne of Rhonda’s Rules is “people do business with other people.” We all prefer to do business with people we like and trust. Consider the “lifetime value” of a customer, not just a onetime sale. Often, you might want to make a little less profit to begin an ongoing customer relationship. Get to know your customers; find out about their businesses or families. One way small businesses can compete with the big guys is by building strong customer relationships.How to structure your sales pitch in a conversationBy listening to customers, you find the issues important to them. At some point, you need to make the pitch – actually ask a “prospect,” to buy. Of course, you don’t push right in. A sales pitch goes something like the following:► First, you’ve got the pitch itself: the description of your product or service and its benefits and competitive advantage. You can probably do that.► Next, you wait. You listen for the customer’s concerns and objections. If they don’t say anything, you ask something like, “Does that make sense to you?”► Third, you reply to their concerns directly. And you ask them something like, “Did I answer your questions?”► Finally, you muster some courage and say, “I’d really like your business. I think we’re a very good fit for your needs. Can we make that happen?”Of course, then you’ve got negotiation on price and terms and the like, but you’ve agreed to do business together.Take heart. Making sales gets easier – not easy, but easier – the more you do it. And you have to do it if you want to grow your business.Rhonda Abrams was named a “Top 30 Global Guru” for Startups. Connect with Rhonda on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Register for Rhonda’s free business tips newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com.The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.