Is Cold Calling Dead?
I recently had the opportunity to attend the IAOP World Outsourcing Summit in Orlando in February. It is one of the single largest gatherings of outsourcing professionals that happens every February. People from around the globe… buyers, suppliers, advisors, lawyers and other representing dozens of countries and industries. I’d like to see some more networking opportunities and a little less trade show atmosphere. Maybe that’s just me…maybe they should survey the attendees. In any event, if you’re on a limited conference budget and can only attend one or two a year, this should certainly be on your short list.
While I was there, I had the pleasure to play golf with Dave Salazar, CEO of AXIS Data Solutions. Dave had mentioned that at a breakfast discussion that morning, people were bantering about whether Cold Calling is dead and obsolete in today’s world. There was one individual from the buyer side who was apparently livid and dressing down the suppliers who were present, telling them to stop calling unless they know him, and his business, and their needs, and had done some research to know how their product or service would solve his problems. In his opinion, cold calling was a (expletive) waste of time. Neither I nor David was of the belief that it was dead. Quite to the contrary, it is an essential business skill for any skilled salesperson. That is not to say all do it well, or professionally, or are even successful. There is an element of process, certain key things to do to enhance your chances of success, and then there is the art of it all. Sort of like putting…you need proper technique, but you must have feel also.
Now to be clear, we were not discussing the hardcore, blind, “one and done”, technique of hard closers from the timeshare industry. They must have a method that works well enough that they keep repeating it. What we were discussing is the practice of cold calling as a way to initiate the sales cycle. As a product of the EDS Sales Development Program from the 1980’s, I was schooled well to make cold calls to C-Level executives and their direct reports. Training that served me very well in the years that followed. I have been on the other side of the phone too and have received more than my fair share of unsolicited cold calls…though my assistants took many more, I am sure of it.
The essentials of successful cold calling remain the same. Here’s what I have found to work well through the years, even in today’s highly networked, social media laced business world. While it may not soothe the ire of the individual from the buyer side that had breakfast that morning with David, it will enhance a caller’s chances for success, and make the call more intriguing when you call us.
- It helps to Prepare: Now I am not saying you need to dive into endless pages of market research and company data, the 10K, the 10Q, studying the company’s website (which often is more misleading than helpful), reading executive bios and such. Statistically, if you make 100 cold calls a day, it will be a great day if you actually speak to the people you are trying to reach, 25 times in a day. A good day would be 20 times, and a fair day would be about 15 connects. Most of the time you will connect with the admin/gate keeper, or you will get voicemail, and about 20 will be either a wrong number or the person is no longer in the position or with the company. Don’t use preparation as an excuse to not call, or to postponing calling. Go with what you have. When I ran an executive search business, once 9am hit, we turned off our PCs, and picked up the phone. We knew we would learn far more by speaking with the prospect about their business needs and future plans than we would by reading stale research or a website that was not updated in the last 2 years.
- God gave us two ears and one mouth: This is so as salespeople we would listen twice as much as we speak. Good salespeople are good listeners (bad salespeople do too much talking). We should ask good, open ended probing questions, let the prospect speak, and listen for what their need is and what value our product or service can provide. There may be 6 or 7 key benefits of our product or service…but typically only 2-3 are relevant to any one buyer. Over selling may overwhelm and hurt your goal…to peak their interest only. As a salesperson for EDS, I had a simple Excel spreadsheet I created for each call. It contained about a dozen fields of information to be completed, mostly from publicly available sources. It was a rudimentary business assessment as to the benefits of Outsourcing and compared the prospect to the “typical” EDS customer in that industry. People who were afraid to call would criticize the assessment saying, “it is not completely accurate”, “my prospects have a different profile”, or some other lame excuse…completely missing the point of the tool…to start a conversation and gather good, timely data. In one such case, I called the former CFO of AFLAC, Norm Foster. I explained why I was calling, discussed my comparative findings and asked for an appointment to see him. He agreed. When I arrived at his office and sat down, he said, “Thom, I agreed to meet with you because you said you did some research on my company and what you said sounded interesting. If it was a ruse to see me, I’ll have security escort you out of the building in 5 minutes. If you have something to discuss, I will give you the 30 minutes I promised to you.” I was there 90 minutes and invited to come back.
- The more refined is you calling list, the greater the likelihood is that you will relate better to the person you are calling. It is better to call all CFOs one week, all CEOs the next week, all CIOs the next week, than to try to call everyone and anyone with no particular focus.
- People in an industry, and in a profession, have a language they speak. They can quickly decipher if you might know enough to be credible. Tailor your message to each audience, everything from your intro, to the body, to the close, and even your voicemail if you need to leave one. First time through, don’t leave a voicemail. Leave the voicemail after the 3rd attempt without connecting live with the intended person. But only count the call as successful if you spoke to the person for whom the call was intended. Speaking with their assistant, or being cut off and redirected to an underling does not count as a successful call. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Never accept NO from anyone who does not also have the authority to say YES”. While you don’t need to leave a voicemail until the 3rd call, be sure to listen to the voicemail of the number you called. Is it the same person you thought you were calling? Is there someone new at that number, possibly doing the same job? Does Robert prefer to be called Spanky? Does Cathy actually go by Cassie? Knowing what to call them is one of the immediate triggers for failure if you get it wrong. I had a colleague at EDS who tried for 2 years to call on Tokio Marine and Fire in New York City. More accurately, he was assigned the company, but he never called them. One sales meeting the salespeople agreed to horse-trade companies where they were not successful. Mike offer up Tokio Marine & Fire stating as he opened the annual report page showing the names of the officers of the company, “Anybody want this one? I can’t even pronounce their names.” Having lived in Japan, and married to a Japanese woman, I took it. I was meeting with them within 30 days.
- It’s all about THEM. Make no mistake about it…your call should be focused on the buyer, not rattling off some mundane, irrelevant specs about your offering. That’s like shooting in the dark hoping you hit something. Learn to ask open ended questions. Those are the ones that encourage dialogue and show interest. Once your prospect is qualified, and there is a need you can satisfy, you will be able to focus the conversation on what is important to THEM.
- Know your value. Too many salespeople that I have known and interviewed through the years, are feature heavy, merit light, and benefit void. If you cannot translate the features and the merits of those features into the value the buyer is likely to receive, then you might as well just recite the phone book. Don’t list features hoping the client will draw their own conclusion as to the value and how your company and its offering are uniquely differentiated. Your role is to make the product/serve relevant.
- Email, mass mailing and direct mail is the tool of choice for those who are afraid to engage. Bean counters like it too because it is a relatively cheap solution…and like the lottery, if you get lucky it will have a good payback…and you won’t have to pay for salespeople. It is anonymous…you don’t have to face rejection. Taking a few man days to craft an award winning email, it is blasted out to the masses, waiting for the phone to ring with buyers from the 1-2% that actually read the email and didn’t just delete it when it appeared in the Outlook Preview Pan. Waiting for the interested buyer to call is not selling, it is order taking.
- Social Media is a great tool for enhancing your cold calling…but it does not replace it. People are not ordering deals, potentially sourced in another country, or without an understanding of the ROI, just because you had an intriguing Tweet, a slick Facebook page describing your product or a LinkedIn banner ad. But used correctly, Social Media can be a great resource to enhance your cold calling success…a force multiplier.
I have done my fair share of cold calling and have also worked with some who do it better than me. So, best not to judge the merits of cold calling by the 95% of salespeople who do it abysmally. If you are looking for gold, you don’t get discouraged by the tons of dirt you have to move to find those few precious ounces of gold. Good prospecting everyone!