Rule No. 1: Know your client.

Heather Robert, a telemarketer at Shark Tank, a two-year-old computer sales division at Government Technology Services Inc. of Chantilly, knows this rule well.

You might be able to sell a security system to a homeowner with a cold call. But when you're peddling advanced computers and targeting big government agencies, you'd better know who's going to answer the phone at the other end and have a good idea of what kind of equipment is already in use.

Working from cubicles in a ground-floor room at company headquarters, the "sharks" try to develop personal relationships with computer-buying officials in agencies.

"Hey Joe, how are you doing today?" Robert calls out to a customer at the other end of her telephone headset. "Busy day? Did you get the price quotes I sent you the other day?"

He asks her for a quote on another item, Microsoft Office 2000, and she responds cheerfully: "Well, wonderful. I'll definitely get back to you as usual by the end of the day."

GTSI has more than 15 years' experience as a computer "reseller" -- a supplier of other companies' brand-name products -- and has long been the biggest reseller servicing the federal government. But the Shark Tank concept of personalized telemarketing is new to the company.

Chris Kiernan, one of the founders of the young GTSI division, said before Shark Tank was created in 1997, GTSI sales reps relied heavily on e-mail and faxes to keep in touch with their customers, which he felt "did not have the personal touch." Rather than revamping the existing sales team, Kiernan created a new team of sales representatives who would get on the phone and schmooze.

Where'd the name come from? The unit's first office had glass on all sides, making people feel they were in a fish tank. No one wanted to be called fish, so they took the name of a more aggressive creature of the sea. Today, toy sharks adorn the tops of computer monitors.

What started as a three-person operation two years ago is now a 20-person team. A reporter's brief conversations with some of their customers confirmed that the sharks succeed in balancing assertiveness with cordiality.

Shark Tank uses a GTSI database that has information about more than a quarter-million government contacts with which the company works. Each shark is assigned to one of five teams, one each for the Army, Navy and Air Force; one for state agencies; and one for federal agencies. When Shark Tank reps consult the database to call clients, they often enter detailed notes on clients' needs and attitudes.

For example, under the name of one of telemarketer Jared Payne's clients, he wrote "a nice person." It helps, Payne said, to remember the client's personality when he makes a sale. And it also helps senior sales representatives who meet with clients to know how to tailor their approach.

While Kiernan declined to disclose the revenue generated by Shark Tank, he said it is the fastest-growing division of GTSI's sales department. GTSI reported net income of $2.34 million on revenue of $606 million in calendar 1998.

You need very little experience to become a shark; basically, "You have to have a great personality," said Rita Ramey, unit manager and popularly known as "mama shark."

"You can even start without the knowledge of how to turn the computer on," she added, only half-jokingly.

But that doesn't mean that the sharks lack knowledge about the products they sell, said Ramey. New hires go through a month of training in computer sales before they are officially initiated into the clan. Then they are "thrown into deep waters," Ramey said.

Each week, GTSI's vendor clients, such as Microsoft Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp., hold a briefing for the sharks, introducing them to particular sales for the week and giving them time to ask questions they think customers will want answered.

Then managers draw up a script and train the team to be well-versed in the product they'll be selling for the week. Casey Jones, who has been with Shark Tank for three months, says he seldom uses the script. "It's there more as a life raft," Jones said.

In Robert's cubicle, she keeps files on different campaigns and "cheat sheets" to help her quickly tap into the information her client needs. Even if she doesn't know an answer to a client's question, Robert said, there's always someone in the company who knows.

The key, Warden said, is to not overwhelm the customers with information as soon as they answer the phone. Start with "asking about their family, their kids, their vacation," Warden said, which is why the notes in the database are so valuable.

Veteran sharks handle up to 680 clients; Robert said it demands diligence and organization to maintain a personal relationship with all of them. She has set up a calendar to keep track of when she needs to make follow-up calls with her individual clients. In addition to established clients, sharks call 40 to 100 potential new clients a day to introduce themselves and talk shop.

The youthful environment has attracted many recent college graduates -- the average age is 23, Kiernan said. Many of the division's new hires were referrals from Shark Tank graduates.

Because the group is so young, the turnover rate at Shark Tank is extremely high. Most sharks stay in the division for only six to nine months. They might be promoted to higher levels in the sales division -- inside sales and eventually field sales. Sharks may also transfer to other divisions within GTSI such as marketing or purchasing.

Some vendors, such as Dell Computer Corp., don't use resellers; Dell's marketing strategy is to customize and sell directly to government agencies without what it sees as the time and cost inconveniences of going through a reseller. GTSI, however, can offer virtually every brand of product to its clients.

Robert, a former schoolteacher who moved with her husband to Northern Virginia only eight months ago, said she has no regrets about leaving her social studies textbooks for her cubicle at Shark Tank. Every time she finishes with clients, Robert said she feels as if they've been dealing with "someone they can depend on."

A Look at ...

Shark Tank

Business: Team of telemarketers at Government Technology Services Inc. that resells computers and software to government agencies. Telemarketers maintain a personal relationship with clients by understanding their specific technological needs.

Founded: In 1997 as a division of GTSI's sales team to add a personal touch to the company's sales and marketing strategy.

Web site: www.gtsi.com

President and chief executive of GTSI: Dendy Young

Manager of Shark Tank: Rita Ramey

Headquarters: Chantilly

CAPTION: A toy shark adorns the computer of Heather Robert, a member of Government Technology Services Inc.'s Shark Tank sales division.