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Thursday, April 02, 2009

The (unwelcome) sales call

About 10 a.m., just as I was about to leave my home office for a series of errands, I heard the business line ring. A woman's voice addressed me in a manner I instinctively knew as "a salesperson reading from a script". She worked at an office supply place, but she didn't get past her first sentence before I bluntly interrupted her, saying "I don't have time for this call" and hung up.

As I got into my car, I thought about my rudeness and disrespect for someone simply doing her work.

Maybe the rep had a non-sales purpose (I didn't even give her time to make a pitch), and maybe her offer would be worthwhile and useful for my business. I didn't give her the time of day, and I'm sure, as she hung up the phone, she felt just a little less secure, and a little more frustrated with another cold call, and another cold, uninterested business owner.

A few years ago, on the advice of sales guru Jeffrey Gitomer, I tried a different approach. I asked my administrative assistant to log all the inbound calls, and put every caller through to me, unless I was in a meeting. I also committed to returning all calls -- from sales people or others -- within 24 hours, and I instructed my assistant to relay this fact to anyone who called, inviting them to leave a message or a voice mail which would be returned.

After a month, I reviewed the results. The entire amount of time spent on the phone took just a few hours. At the time, I accepted a proposal from a representative for a job creation program to provide some IT services at low cost, and fielded an insurance rep who convinced me to apply for some additional life insurance. (Because of some pre-existing conditions, it turned out the premiums would be far higher than I could justify).

I concluded that it really isn't too hard to be courteous and respectful to everyone who tries to sell me stuff, and vowed to change my ways.

So what happened today? And why do I often fail to return voice messages from sales reps?

Thinking about it, I realized that while I have a responsibility to be respectful to everyone, perhaps the sales reps have a responsibility to be respectful to me.

Surely, the person who called this morning could not have known that I was about to leave and really didn't have time to speak. But why did she have to call me? What offer is so important, valuable, and useful, that it requires the intrusion of an inbound call to a "decision maker"?

If she had something directly and specifically relevant to me -- not a canned message she would express in the same way to 100 or 1,000 other people, I would have listened, and if I had been rude, she would have been correct to phone me back and say, "Wait, really, listen, I know you."

The problem is that most people selling stuff are so busy selling their thing, that they forget that the individuals who might be appropriate to buy the service are not a cookie cutter "prospects" who fit the script. We're individuals and humans, too.

Is there a better way? Yes, and it involves some common sense and respect.

First, can you do enough homework before phoning anyone to know that the service you are offering is truly relevant. If you don't know, and need to find answers, maybe someone more junior in the business can help you with the research information.

Second, can you find a way to commence the relationship by giving or sharing something of value and utility. You probably will have trouble doing this by a blind phone call, but you can mail some information or if you have an email address, share things that way.

Third, do you really know who you are calling, and if you do, do you have some valid connection?

Say, for example, you were a printer trying to sell me printing services. Maybe you could speak with one of my best advertisers, and obtain their permission to call using their name. Do you think I would take a call on reference from one of our better clients? Absolutely.

I'm not saying that script-based telemarketing doesn't have its place -- and you can sometimes achieve worthy results playing the numbers game. And I vow to be more courteous in the future.

But sellers should appreciate that buyers don't need your call, unless you care enough to really know what is really important to them. This morning, I simply wanted to get on with the day.

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