By Thomas Cooksey, CWS-VI/CSR

After 40 years of training and helping hundreds of people find success in selling residential water treatment, I have come to realize one thing: if you want to make money in the business today, you have to learn how to sell the RO. It’s much easier to sell two units at one location than it is to sell one unit and then start looking for a second place to sell another unit. Yet, many salespeople I run into want to do just that and for some interesting reasons:

  • They don’t want to compromise the softener sale.
  • People say they aren’t interested in drinking water and just want the softener.
  • The customer can’t see spending another $1,000 on just drinking water.
  • Their refrigerator water is fine and purifies the drinking water

What it really boils down to (if you listen closely enough) is that modern salespeople don’t know:

  • How to justify the investment in drinking water like they can with the value proposition for a softener
  • How to demonstrate the difference between tap water, softened water or filtered water from the refrigerator and RO water
  • How to close based on savings from an existing budget

If these objections and lack of sales skills sound familiar, then this article is for you. Most basic manufacturers in our industry have not provided skill sets for selling drinking water to the same extent they have for softeners. Approximately 75 percent of the people who buy softeners have owned a softener before; softeners have become a commodity. Prospects come to the table pre-sold, to an extent; subsequently, softener salespeople do not justify the investment or shake the bottles the way it was done in the 70s.

Drinking water, however, has not achieved commodity status. RO is a conceptual sale that needs those 70s sales skills to make closing a breeze. In this article, we endeavor to educate on how to find money in budgets even if prospects do not have bottled water. We will present five demonstrations that will help prospects understand why their refrigerator filter does not give them the water they want and what high-quality water can mean for them. We will offer two closing questions and a value proposition, if needed to write up an order. The entire process takes just 15 minutes to sell a second unit and make an extra commission. Drinking water with a faucet on the sink can be much more referable than a softener alone.

The ground rules
This is what you need to know and have with you on every call:

  • Don’t let an insincere objection like, “We’re not interested in any drinking water. Just the softener for right now,” stop you in your tracks. Until you show high-quality water, prospects don’t know enough to say no. When this happens, look down and say, “I understand (wait a beat); let me show you something.” Drinking water must be demonstrated, not talked about.
  • Have a rationale for showing both the softener and the drinking water. Maybe you have a picture of your business from back in the 60s and pictures of old-time trucks and softeners. Show a picture of the first RO you ever sold and say, “This is a drinking water system we introduced into the market back in 1974. The secret to our success is that since that time, we have taken a systematic approach to the water around here. We help you know and understand as much as we do about both the soft water and the drinking water. We are going to look at the water that goes in you, as well as the water that goes on you.”
  • Show and close on the drinking water first, not as an afterthought. (We like to do these steps right after the plumbing inspection, five minutes into the presentation.) It is nice to know you have the drinking water sold and out of the way before you even get to the softener.
  • Carry the following tools with you on every call. To accommodate these items, stop carrying briefcase kits. Buy a tool bag with a large center opening (put all the drinking water stuff in there) and use the outside pockets for all your softener demo items. Everything from the following list you don’t carry with you will cost you money in the end.
  1. One gallon of RO water, under 15 ppm; sports bottles don’t let you do enough. If you can fill a gallon from your home RO, that is the most effective way because it shows what clients can expect in their home. With pictures of your family drinking from your own home system, it confirms you to be a user of the product, not just a seller.
  2. One chrome RO demonstration faucet with a flat bottom you can place on the sink. If you offer different finishes, have samples of those as well.
  3. One three-stage demonstration TDS meter. These are expensive, but they are accurate and the three stages (0-50, 0-500, 0-5,000) tell our story. My experience with the digital wand units is that they tend to test 100-175 ppm below the actual TDS reading.
  4. One conductivity light. This is fundamentally the same test as the previous one, but the water’s conductivity turns on the light rather than moves the needle.
  5. Lipton tea bags in a zip-lock bag
  6. Two clear glass tea cups
  7. Common total dissolved solids chart (see Figure 1)
  8. Scaled commercial coffee maker picture (see Figure 2)

Figure 2. Scaled commercial coffee maker


All suited up? Here are some scripts and action steps, so let’s get selling.

Justification step: the Commercial Beverage Survey
“I would like to get a feel for your habits regarding drinking commercial beverages. You know, something that comes in a cup, a bottle or a can. Eighty-five percent of the people we visit do not view their tap water as a refreshing beverage any longer. Instead, they turn to commercial beverages like soda, tea, juice, bottled water or $4 cups of coffee. Does that sound like you? Don, people tell us they are drinking one, two or three (write 1, 2, 3 on your talking pad) beverages a day. Would your personal use be on the high side, the low side or right about in the middle? The middle? (Circle number 2.)

“Mary, how about you? Same question, above average, below average or average? You think you are above average? (Circle number 3.) How about little Don and Mary junior? Do they imitate your habits? So what you are telling me is that the four of you are consuming about 10 beverages a day? (Write 10 and circle it.) Are there any days where you hold a family meeting and decide you are not going to drink any of these commercial beverages that day and all of you are just going to go thirsty? No there aren’t, are there? So if we multiply these 10 beverages by 30 days, you are saying that you are consuming around 300 beverages a month. Is it any wonder that nine out of 10 of the biggest sellers at any convenience store are commercial beverages? It is the biggest aisle in any grocery store.

“There are different prices you can pay for these beverages, but people tell us they are spending 25, 50 or more than 75 cents per beverage (Write down 25, 50, and 75.) Which sounds best to you; about 50 cents? So if we multiply 300 beverages by 50 cents, you are saying that the price for being thirsty in your home is around $150. (Write $150.) How does that sound to you? It sounds a little high? You know, it does seem a little high to me, too. What sounds better to you; $100 a month? (Cross out $150 and write $100.) Let me circle this and we will come back to it a little later.”

In this commercial beverage step, we can find out their monthly drinking budget, just like a softener. Later on in a three-way close, along with the water softener, we can ask what percentage of the time they would reach for the faucet you have set on their sink and what percentage of the time they would drink something that comes in a cup, a bottle or a can. If they say 50 percent, that means they are making available $50 a month to apply toward your total water solution. Compare this to a $25 rental or a $30 ownership payment and you can begin to see the real value you can offer with RO. But make sure high-quality water is best for them and demonstrate it.

Drinking water demonstration
The ice cube ‘lick’. “May I have three ice cubes please? Have you ever wondered why your ice cubes look like frozen milk and store-bought ice is so clear you can read a newspaper through it? Most people know that when they heat water in a kettle or a water heater, all the stuff that is in the water that isn’t water will come out of solution and form scale that you can see. The same thing happens when you rapidly freeze water in a modern refrigerator and an expensive refrigerator filter has no effect on it. These are dissolved mineral salts that are in your water. If you take the cube and rub it on the tip of your tongue (have the prospects imitate your action), you can taste the salt, can’t you? You try to cover it up with sodas or sweet tea, but it’s still there.”

The ice cube ‘bob’. “May I have a tall, clear glass please? I’m going to fill this glass two-thirds full with the water I brought and may I have a handful of your ice, please? Now I am going to bob your ice up and down and look what happens. Look at the stuff coming out of solution to form sediment in the bottom of your glass. Has this ever happened to you when you made an adult beverage before the big game? This goes right through your fridge filter because it is not designed to stop it and it doesn’t have a drain to get rid of it.”

The TDS comparison to the common fotal dissolved solids chart and RO water. “Let’s see how concentrated these salts are in your water. I have here a meter that corresponds to this chart. Many people think that water is a conductor of electricity because of things they’ve heard or seen in the movies. Water in its purest form, however, is not a conductor of electricity but acts as an insulator. What conducts electricity are the dissolved mineral salts and heavy metals that might occur in the water. As you can see, the closer you get to zero, the higher the quality, the better for drinking, cooking, making ice and drinks. If you look on my meter, the first range, 0-50, corresponds to high-quality RO water or bottled water. If we put your water in and the needle stays inside that range, we are good to go and you have bottled water quality coming out of your fridge or your tap. If it goes beyond 50, then we move to the next setting, 0-500. Average tap water across the US is around 200. At 300, you can taste the salts and because we could taste the salts in your ice cubes, we already know it’s at least around 300 (300 ppm is 18 gpg). At 500, that’s the US EPA limit. The agency isn’t saying your water is unsafe to drink, but that it is not very palatable and there are enough dissolved salts that it might not quench your thirst, will make cloudy ice and produce a lousy cup of coffee. If your water goes over 500, we go to the final level, 0-5,000. At 1,000, the water is not fit for human consumption. If you were in the desert and this was the only water around, it would support life, but life in the desert wouldn’t be so great. Let’s go back to the first setting and put in your water. We knew you didn’t have bottled water coming out of your tap. Let’s go to the next level, 0-500. It looks like it is 375 parts per million. That’s why we could taste it. My water at home starts out about the same as yours, but let’s see what it is after it goes through my drinking water system. Push the button. It is barely budging. Let’s go down to the 0-50 level and push again. It looks like it is about 12-15.”

Optional conductivity light comparison. “Let’s look at this again from a little different point of view. I am going to take these two glass tea cups and fill the one marked YQ on the bottom (for your quality) two-thirds full with your water and other one marked HQ (for high quality), with the water I brought, also two-thirds full. I have here an electric probe I am going to plug in with a light on top. This is the same type of quality check we use on the outlet side of our ultra-high quality deionizers, where we take everything out of the water. When the tanks become exhausted and salts begin to leak through, the flickering light or an alarm claxon indicates to the operator it is time to shut down and change tanks. Let’s put this probe in the HQ water first. Nothing; it’s almost like it is not even plugged in. Let’s put it in the YQ water. I think there is enough light by which to read a book. Did you folks have any idea there was this much stuff in your drinking water?”

Tea comparison. “Well, actually you did. That’s why you are buying 300 beverages a month. We are hard-wired to seek out and drink low-solids water and avoid water like this. Throw some chemicals in like chlorine and we avoid it even faster. Let me show you what happens when you try to use this water to make a drink. I am going to put the YQ and HQ water in your microwave and set it for three minutes.” (Turn on the microwave and tell the following two stories.)

“Who’s the tea drinker in the family? Who drinks iced tea? Have you ever been in a restaurant and the waitress comes to take your drink order? Someone orders Coke, someone orders root beer and someone orders iced tea. When she brings them out, they all look the same. Iced tea is not supposed to look like root beer. This is orange pekoe tea, the most popular tea type in the world. When you see it on TV, it’s an orange-ish yellow color, with an exotic floral aroma and a brisk taste. It is not intended to be brown or look like root beer.”

“Have you ever wondered why people pay $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks when they can buy the company’s coffee anywhere, bring it home and make it for pennies? That’s right; you bring it home and it doesn’t taste the same. Because in 18,000 locations worldwide, the first thing Starbucks does is treat and standardize the quality of their water with water like I have brought you. That way whether you are in Seattle, Cleveland or Beijing, the coffee will always taste the same with the same great aroma. And they can do it all using one-third less coffee. For a chain like Starbucks, that is a lot of money. Here is a cell phone picture of a local commercial coffee maker. Look at all the stuff left behind that makes it taste different. That’s what Starbucks never has to deal with.

“There’s the bell. Let’s get our two cups and make tea. Now both waters look the same, right? Let’s start dunking the tea bags. Can you begin to see a difference? One looks darker and look at the top of the darker one; it is starting to get a head on it like root beer. Let me get these bags out of the way. Which one looks stronger? Your tea looks stronger, so it should smell stronger too. Come over here and smell the HQ tea first. (Important: bring the noses to the tea, do not take the tea to the noses or you will disrupt the aroma chimney.) Smell the rich exotic aroma? Now smell yours. How would you describe it? Would you like to taste it? Take a sip of the HQ tea and roll it around in your mouth before swallowing. Now do it a second time. Now take a nice big swig and see how the taste and aroma are just what you would expect. Now take a drink of the YQ tea. Your face says it all.”

The closing questions

  • “Let me ask you a question. Can you see where high- quality drinking water might have a place in your home?”
  • “If I could show you how you could get up to 10 cases of high-quality water every day flowing from that designer faucet over to your ice-maker and water-in-the-door refrigerator and we could do it for $25 to $30 a month, could we fit that into your budget?”

That’s it. That’s all it takes. When you get to the end, the rest is details. Don’t buy it back by talking about cartridges, pumps or service. This presentation should be done every time you see someone who doesn’t have high-quality drinking water. Just doing the basics will give you a units per contract (UPC) rate of 1.30-1.40. If you become passionate about it, UPC rates of 1.50-1.75 are common. That means every third to every other order has two units on it. If it works for you, let me hear about it.

About the author
Thomas Cooksey is a graduate of Denison University and a former Peace Corps volunteer to West Africa. He grew up in his family’s Culligan business in Youngstown, OH and has worked in the water treatment industry for 40 years. He worked for Culligan USA as a field person, store manager and franchise development manager. He was Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for the Bruner Corporation in Milwaukee, WI, held the same position for Clearwater Systems in Akron, OH and was VP/General Manager for Rabb/Kinetico Water in Warsaw, IN. Since 2002, Cooksey has been the Manager of Residential Products and Training for the Midwest Region for Hall’s Culligan Water in Wichita, KS.


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