Cold-calling businesses can strike fear in the heart of any marketer. I can still recall the first time I considered picking up the phone and calling business customers to try to sell advertising. The very idea made me nauseated.
I had zero sales and marketing experience and I was convinced that the moment I spoke to a “real” business person, they would instantly identify me as a charlatan. A 23-year old kid playing at being a business-to-business (B2B) salesperson.
It wasn’t even as if there was someone else in the business with experience in this area who could teach me a few tricks. I was simply going to have to learn on the go.
Eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer. Emails are all well and good but getting more businesses to commit to a purchase was going to require direct conversations.
I procrastinated as long as possible by making a comprehensive list of everyone I wanted to call and designing a pointlessly intricate spreadsheet to track my interactions. But, eventually, I could delay no longer…
What I discovered was that telephone sales, especially when it involved cold-calling, was even harder than I imagined – but not for the reasons I expected.
And, after a lot of trial and error, I discovered a few simple techniques that vastly improved my results… including one technique that allowed me, for the most part, to breeze past the dreaded gatekeepers.
Conquering My Cold-Calling Nerves
A few years ago, I took a psychometric test that analyzed my personality from the perspective of working in a sales position. The results confirmed what I would have guessed…
My personality type is the absolute opposite of what makes an ideal salesperson.
I’m telling you this not to undermine my position as someone who might be able to give you advice in this area but to highlight that, if the techniques I’m going to share worked for someone as ill-suited for this job as it’s possible to be, imagine what it could do for you if you have even a modest affinity for the telephone sales!
When I first began making cold-calls, one of the first things I discovered is that people weren’t as suspicious or difficult as I feared they would be. I imagined being harangued by question after question that I wouldn’t be able to answer.
But it wasn’t like that…
Generally, the calls fell into three categories:
- The person I wanted to speak to wasn’t available and so I left a message asking for a call back.
These, by far, made up the majority of my calls. Sales cold-calling is mostly an exercise in patience and persistence.
- I reached the correct person and they were too busy or uninterested, and quickly dismissive.
These calls were disappointing but weren’t as uncomfortable as I imagined they would be. They were over quickly and I simply moved on to the next call.
- I reached the correct person and they were willing to give me a little time to talk.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, these were the calls I dreaded the most. They formed the minority of calls so they took longer to become accustomed to – and they required me to actually try and sell something!
In time, however, I found a rhythm that was successful enough to start growing our list of leads and customers. If you’re as nervous about the prospect of cold-calling as I was, here are the things I found to be most helpful.
B2B Phone Calls are Easier
Consumers hate receiving sales calls over the telephone. Whether they’re cooking dinner, changing the baby’s diaper, watching Hardcore Pawn or staring blankly at the wall, your call is considered to be far less important than what they were doing when you interrupted.
Some years later, I spent three months doing business-to-consumer (B2C) cold-calling. Curiously, I wasn’t terrible at it and, after a week or so of trial and error, I become fairly consistent in my results. But it was a soul-destroying job that I would hate to return to.
Business-to-business cold-calls, however, are a very different beast. For a start, it’s considerably easier.
Yes, you still get some people who are irritable that you’ve disturbed them in the middle of something important, but the majority of people are far nicer about it, even if they’re dismissing you quickly.
Overall, the percentage of business people who are willing to engage with you is much higher.
It’s worth remembering that most of the business people you speak to are being paid a salary or by the hour. In other words, they’re being PAID to take your call. And if you’re speaking to the right person, purchasing is a part of their job.
In my case, I was selling marketing opportunities to people who worked in marketing. At the very least, most of my prospects – when I eventually got through to them – were willing to hear me out.
Stand Up and Smile
This might sound a little basic but I discovered that, when the person I was trying to reach answered the phone, it was helpful to physically stand up.
In my head, it was a bit like being sat at a table, and then standing up to greet and shake hands with someone who just entered the room.
It took the quiver out of my voice (I really was that nervous!), reminded me to breathe and made my greeting louder and more confident.
And, as you’ve no doubt heard before, smiling does change the tone of your voice for the better.
Get to the Point and Make It Free
Small talk is valuable (more on that in a moment) but, in the first example above, if I was talking to someone for the first time, it helped to get to the point quickly. I came up with a short, snappy description of who I was, what our business was and why I was calling.
And the reason for my call was always to offer them something for free.
It’s no different to having a landing page offering a free report, and then showing the prospect the sales page further down the line. Cold-calling and immediately asking for a sale was always less effective than starting with a freebie.
Our website had a directory of suppliers and any business in the industry could obtain a listing, free of charge. This was always my opening gambit.
If they asked about cost, I would say that upgrades were available but that they were optional.
Once I got the agreement to continue I would take the details for their listing and only then would I invite them to upgrade.
In truth, I was much better at getting the agreement for the free listing than the paid upgrade. I didn’t care too much as the main goal was to make the connection, get them onto the directory and then follow up with upgrade offers later.
If I had a do-over, I would have pushed harder and been more aggressive in the discounting, maybe by stating that the upgrade offer on the site was $99 but if they agreed to the upgrade over the phone today, it would only be $29.
Don’t Read a Script but Have Facts at Hand
Reading a script is good when you’re nervous but it’s not terribly effective. People instinctively know when you’re not being yourself and it makes them suspicious. And you can only be yourself by speaking naturally.
I had an “elevator pitch”-style piece for describing the business but otherwise I tried hard to be conversational.
What helped most in this area, at least for maintaining some level of confidence, was having a list of facts in front of me. I had details that I could provide in response to the most common questions about our business, and I had a list of our chief selling points.
It’s definitely worth brainstorming as many selling points as possible because you never know what might be most effective from one person to the next. I once took a call from someone who was trying to convince their boss to purchase advertising from us and he wanted me to give him some reasons he could use in his pitch.
I rattled through a laundry-list of useful facts that failed to impress him, until I mentioned that we were #1 in Google for a particular search phrase. He instantly stopped the conversation, saying that I needn’t continue because that fact alone would be all he needed to convince his manager.
Ask Questions and Be Interested
Regardless of the outcome of the initial cold-call, I tried to make small talk in an effort to make our interaction more memorable and lay a foundation for future phone calls. I’m notoriously terrible at social conversation (my idea of small talk is to tell you about my most recent etymological discovery) but it had to be done.
I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but I found that the easiest way to get people to open up was to ask them about what their business did and especially its origins.
Have you noticed that business owners love to tell you on their website and other marketing material about the year the business was founded and how it came to be? And have you also noticed how most consumers couldn’t care less?
Well, that’s because this information is meaningless to the customer but is often deeply personal to the people who work there – especially if you’re talking to one of the founders.
I could often tell how well a call had gone based on the friendliness and enthusiasm of the “goodbye.” And I noticed a correlation between how long I’d listened to them gush about their business and its origin story, and how much they appeared to have enjoyed the conversation.
To this day, even in social interactions, my fallback strategy (once I’ve exhausted discussion on why grammatical sloppiness and lack of precision in language is hastening the end of days) is to find out one of the person’s chief interests and ask them questions about it. Even the shyest of conversationalists can suddenly talk for hours when they meet someone who appears to be interested in a topic they know and love.
Small talk may, by definition, be trivial. But when it comes to B2B cold-calls, it can make a huge difference to your follow-up phone calls and emails.
Evading the Gatekeepers
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re definitely new to cold-calling. A gatekeeper, in this context, is the person who answers the phone on behalf of the person you’re trying to reach and whose sole purpose is to deflect your call.
Needless to say, if you contact a gatekeeper and you tell them that you’re cold-calling with an “opportunity” or anything synonymous, you’ll find that – 99% of the time – the person you want to reach is unavailable.
The easiest way past a gatekeeper is to outright lie about the purpose of your call. I’m not down with that. I’m not, however, adverse to a little subterfuge. Here are some of the techniques I found to be effective in getting past the Black Knight (“none shall pass!”).
- Hint at an existing relationship
Cold-callers are anathema to a gatekeeper, so implying that there’s an existing relationship definitely helps. Send an email or a letter to the target and then, when the gatekeeper asks why you’re calling, explain that you sent an email/letter, that you’ve not heard back and you want to check they received it.
- Make the request second-hand
Tell the gatekeeper that you’ve been asked to contact <Target Name> about <something that sounds benign>. For example:
“I’ve been asked to contact Joe Bloggs about the Fruit Loops exhibition next month.”
It’s true that you’ve been asked to contact Joe. Your boss asked you to cold-call them. But framing the question in this way, to many people, will sound like you’re RETURNING a call.
It’s horribly manipulative but it can give you an opening that you might not otherwise achieve.
What do you do if the gatekeeper is sharp enough to ask you WHO asked you to contact them? It’s rare, but I find it best just to ignore difficult questions and carry on regardless. Explain the purpose of your call and ask to be put through.
If the gatekeeper pushes for an answer and you don’t want to just hang up, there’s no harm in coming clean. Try phrasing it this way…
“Our company provides <brief description of your product or service> and our Managing Director asked me to call to set up a meeting.”
That kind of response will 95% of the time get you out of an awkward question. The other 5% of the time it actually gets you through to your target!
There’s something about invoking a prestigious job title that gives gatekeepers room for doubt. Don’t forget, as much as they want to keep “nuisance” calls away, they also don’t want to incorrectly block a legitimate call that their boss needs to receive.
- Call as a journalist
See PART THREE of this article series to understand fully how this works. If you’ve created an arm of your business for this purpose, you can call to ask about press releases, their attendance at a forthcoming event or anything else news-related. You might be diverted to a PR person, but they’re usually affiliated with the marketing team which is perfect is you’re selling advertising.
The Ultimate B2B Gatekeeper Dodge
This strategy is far and away the most effective that I found. It takes more time and effort, but it’s perfect for those hard-to-reach decision-makers.
When it comes right down to it, the only true way to cold-call someone who is protected by a gatekeeper pro is to remove the “cold” from the equation. You HAVE to find a way to make an undeniable connection, so that your call is a legitimate follow-up and not a call out of the blue.
The best way to do this is described in PART THREE of this article series. If you can meet your target at an event and swap business cards, then your job is much easier. You’re calling because you met at the Boondoggle Expo and you want to chat about your mutual interests.
But if you haven’t met the target in person, you can achieve much the same effect. It just takes a little more work.
If your access to your target is blocked, start by moving down the chain. If you can’t reach the manager or the director of the department you want to sell to, ask if there’s someone else in the department you can speak to. You might need to do some digging so you can ask for an executive by name, but I often found that when a gatekeeper denied me access to my primary target, they were more likely to agree to put me through to someone in a lower position rather than refuse me a second time.
Once you get through to your secondary target, treat the call as you would any other. Introduce yourself, explain the reason for your call and offer the freebie.
You may find that this secondary target is still sufficiently well-placed for you to eventually make a sale. A manager or director might be more likely to give you an instant decision, but someone in a lower position can still recognize the value in your offer and then make the pitch on your behalf.
This person, effectively, becomes your “in.”
Don’t hate me for stating the truth but an executive, as opposed to a manager, often has more TIME to chat and, because of, shall we say, certain levels of boredom, is more INCLINED to chat.
And if that executive has the ear of the person you originally tried to reach, you might not need to worry about speaking directly to the decision-maker.
If, however, the executive isn’t interested or capable of making a purchase, as long as you can get them to accept the freebie, you’ve still made a connection. The next time you call to speak to your primary target, you can tell the gatekeeper that the department recently obtained <impressive-sounding description of your freebie> and you need to discuss it with them.
My freebie, if you recall, was a free listing in our online directory. So, for me, subsequent calls were along the lines of:
“<Target Name> is advertising <Company Name> on our website and I need to check we have all the details correct.”
Simple, but invariably effective in getting me past the receptionist denizens!
With so many digital advertising venues available, it’s easy to ignore the potential of making telephone calls – especially if you hate the idea of talking to people in person.
But B2B calls can be easier than you imagine, and they open doors far more easily than emails that can be easily be lost in the crowd.
Especially for a new business, a little cold-calling can go a very long way.
Hopefully the advice in this, and the previous three articles (# 1, # 2, #3 ) have turned you on to the potential of the B2B market and offered you some sound ideas for getting up and running. The strategy in PART THREE especially offers a route that can get you on the inside very quickly.
In the final article in this series, we’ll look at how to react when your successful B2B