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Monday, July 28, 2008

Rethinking the cold call

Are these guys wearing proper safety gear? The image is from the site, where Steven Cull offers a cold calling/lead development service from Chicago, Illinois. A similar service, focused primarily for the construction industry, is offered by Construction Business Development in the United Kingdom. Does it make sense to use an outside vendor to cold call on your behalf? I'm not sure -- if the callers achieve success and the cost per worthwhile lead is justified, these services may be of value for your business.

Perhaps the most overly abused, misunderstood, and ineffectively handled concepts in selling and marketing is the cold call. In our perception, the cold call is just that -- an intrusive 'invasion' of space from an uninvited person who knows nothing of our business and wants to bother a senior decision-maker to make a 'pitch' for something he or she doesn't really want or need.

OK, I know, no one in sales really thinks that way, but you would have to wonder when canvassers drop by the office (or in the residential environment, knock on the door, uninvited), or phone us at work or home, with their pre-programmed script and mindless selling blather.

I hate it.

But cold calling doesn't have to be that bad; in fact, it can truly take you to the heights of business and selling success -- if you think about things in a truly different light. That is, you really have something of immediate and practical relevance to he person you are calling; something that would legitimately get a 'wow, this is news and important to me' response.

Clearly, you aren't going to get that just by grabbing a business directory and calling every name on the list; or walking down the street, knocking on every door, or phoning everyone in the book. This type of cold calling is much more thoughtful, specific, and relevant.

My favorite example, which I've cited several times, is the cold call I made to a major organization back in 1998. I had been at a meeting where some key people we were seeking to do business with virtually threw me out of their office, and then said they wished the other organization would 'leave town' too. So I called 'the other organization', cold! I didn't know anyone there, had no previous relationship with the business, but certainly had some interesting news to share.

We met, and formed a business alliance that continues to this day. (I won't cite details in this blog because some stories, no matter how interesting, cannot be shared in public.)

So, say you have a new technology, building material, resource, or idea. Clearly the best way to approach things is through relationships and referrals, but you might be in a position to actually know something immediately relevant to the business you are calling, because you know your market, the business, and its competition. Call them -- and share your observations. You'll connect.

A point to make here is the misleading 'sales training' line that selling is a 'numbers game'. In this thesis, the more people you call (bother!) the more you sell. So you call and call, and hope things will stick.

In some industries/sectors this argument might work well -- if you really know your stuff. A few weeks ago, a sophisticated and I believe successful investment advisor phoned me, cold. He left a message. I courteously returned the call (which I will do whenever I'm not overwhelmingly busy) and explained that my wife makes all the investment decisions in our family, she does her own thing, and, no, I am not introducing him to her. Then I asked him about his success rate with the cold calls.

He says he disciplines himself to do the calling for an hour a day, three days a week. He says he can calculate over time how many leads he calls convert to business, and it is worthwhile. And it may well work like that, if your market is wide enough, your offering is relevant enough, and you have the confidence and maturity of someone who has achieved success in your business -- this comes over really quickly on the phone, I can assure you.

(However, I am becoming immune to investment advisers and others who use lead generators -- cold calling telemarketers -- to set the stage for their own work. They are passing the buck to someone else, and it is not just annoying, it is irritating to me.)

I would argue that you will get much better results, overall, if you research your proposition, and if you are going to cold call, either have something directly and immediately (and almost exclusively) relevant to the person you are calling,and/or an offer/proposal that is so good that it is foolish to ignore.

If you are, instead, going to play the "numbers game" remember, you have to have enough numbers to play with in the first place, or you'll burn through all your leads and be left with very little to show for your wasted effort.

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