The art of cold calling

Bashing the phones. Dialling and smiling. Doing the business. Opening that window. However you dress it up, cold calling has long been viewed as a necessary evil when drumming up new business. But with the dawn of the social media age, it has become much easier to track down, contact and start conversations with potential leads. Does this spell the end of cold calling?

"Absolutely not," says sales expert Andy Preston. And this is a man who knows how to sell. Preston not only has over ten years' experience cold calling, he's even been drafted in by the likes of HSBC and IBM to help their sales teams hit targets. "Cold calling is not dead. It's evolving," he says."There are still just as many cold calls being made now as ever. Social media has become a great excuse for lazy sales people with a fear of rejection to get out of picking up the phone. They don't hit sales targets and, when challenged about it, they say, 'I've been on Twitter'!"

The same rules for effective cold calling still apply, argues Preston. "You need to have done your homework beforehand," he says. "You cannot make a professional cold call without knowing - at least - the name of the person you are trying to reach. Otherwise you create problems with the gatekeepers. People are far too savvy to pass on calls that begin, "Can you put me through to your head of marketing, please?" It's pure laziness not to find out the names. It always has been. These days, tools like LinkedIn and Twitter can help you find out those names. And if you don't do that, you're daft."

Simon Corbett, founder of Jargon PR, wholeheartedly agrees. "Telesales remains a great way to generate new business," he says. "The secret is to always put quality before quantity.  Before you call anyone, look at the person you will be speaking to on-line through sites such as LinkedIn."

But Brad Burton, founder of business breakfast network 4Networking, has a different perspective: "My view? It is dead," he commented on our Smarta web chat last week. "Or as near as, damn it. Telemarketing is a long way around to getting an appointment. When was the last time a telemarketer cold called you and got an appointment?"

Many businesses also share Burton's cynicism, regarding cold calling as, at best, a last resort. Andrew Ball, manager of Chazbrooks Communications , recommends using cold calling only when "you have exhausted all the other possible routes".

He explains: "In an ideal world, you will have potential customers actively searching you out as a result of your professional reputation, with new customers referred to you by happy clients of yours.  As a backup, you will also have an excellent website, staff trained to offer add-on business to your existing clients, and you will be networking at relevant industry and business events."

All well and good, but what if you're in a highly competitive industry? "I think cold calling does work for products such as insurance or mobile phones, and where it really is a numbers game," says Peter Gradwell, founder of internet services firm Gradwell. "If you can afford to ring up everyone in the county and even a small percentage buys something, you will still make money."

Gradwell makes this distinction despite having recently dissolved his telemarketing team. The internet entrepreneur founded his eponymous firm back in 1998. The business now pulls in a turnover in excess of £4m but none of this revenue comes from cold calling. "Gradwell's products are such that customers have to understand the concepts and want to invest in the technology; cold calling is hopeless for this," he says.

"After investing 80-100k this financial year, we gave up on cold calling," he continues. "It wasn't an effective option for us and we found that it didn't generate the results we were hoping for.  We went from having a web driven inbound-only sales team, to implementing an outbound cold calling team, and now we've gone back to inbound only."

In contrast, Jargon PR's Corbett says that ten per cent of his agency's annual income comes from telesales programmes. And this is no two-bit agency: Jargon was recently listed as one of the largest tech PR agencies in the UK.

Helen Beckett is also in the public relations business. She founded her agency Illuminate Communcations after a ten-year career in charity and PR.  Her advice? Always try and offer something for free on a cold call; ideally, something that won't cost your company the earth to deliver. "If you are a creative organisation then you could offer a free 'surgery' or 'brainstorm' or 'ideas session'" she says. "This is a great way of getting to meet the potential client and show what you can do."

It's also incredibly important to motivate your sales team when it comes to cold calling. There's still stigma attached to the practice, even on the sales floors themselves. It's often the new kid or the unfortunate exec who's missed their sales target that gets saddled with cold calling duties. "That's a fair assessment," says Preston. "People often view cold calling as a punishment for not getting sales from the usual channels."

"Every single sales person should be doing some element of cold calling," states Preston. "Before the recession, many sales people got lazy. They all became 'account managers'. Then the recession hit and their rejection skills weren't honed. These were the people who ended up losing their jobs."

It's a harsh assessment. And Preston has another grim pronouncement for shy sales folk, desperately looking to avoid the cold call. "You know where sales suicide lies?" he asks. "Selling via email."

Ten top tips for mastering the art of the cold call

1.) "Remember that the most important person on the call is you," says Preston. "People always say things like, 'the customer is always right'. Rubbish. Get your point across, sell your heart out, or you're dead."

2.) "Think about the time and the day you ring," says Illuminate Communications' Beckett. "For example, the end of the financial year is stressful for a lot of companies, but leading up to Christmas or during the summer there can often be a more relaxed atmosphere in many offices."

3.) "Understand the company thoroughly and think of what pain points the person you are speaking to may have," advises Jargon PR's Corbett.

4.) "Know your product/service well -  preparation and research is vital," Says Chazbrooks Andrew Ball. "People buy from people who love and have faith in their products and companies."

5.) Don't bother with the pleasantries," is Preston's advice. "Nobody cares. If you're at home, about at have your tea at six in the evening, and you get a sales call, how do you feel? Give your name and company, establish it's convenient to speak, then give the reason for your call. This isn't about getting a personal rapport. Stick to the business rapport."

6.) "Be realistic about what can stop you from getting the business - don't flog a dead horse," adds Ball.

7.) "After the call always follow-up with an e-mail that adds value, i.e. that tells people something new.  Don't just send what you have already said," is Corbett's tip.

8.) "Offer a free online tool, piece of valuable research or a guide that is of use to your potential client," Says Beckett. "Even some good food! A cold call from a company that makes chocolate mousse wanting to send free samples is welcome at most offices!"

9.) Corbett says: "Forget old school sales techniques to try to keep people on the phone, just be clear, informed and direct, don't waste anyone's time."

10.) "Ask questions and listen to the answers - getting the questioning technique right is key. Discover their true needs," says Ball.

Words by Rebecca Burn-Callander

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