At HubSpot, we’ve spent the last nine years demonstrating the power of inbound to improve lead generation and customer acquisition. But the grim reality is that many salespeople don’t have enough inbound leads to fill their pipeline and hit their numbers. Cold calling -- working your way through a purchased list or even the phone book -- seems like the easiest way to compensate.
So how do you cold call effectively?
Step one: You don’t.
Cold calling is hard, has an extremely low connect rate, is usually a negative experience for the prospects you manage to connect with, undermines your status as a trusted advisor from the first call, and can even have a negative impact on your brand.
It’s also a terrible experience for salespeople. We all have awful stories of our own worst cold calls, some of which were the “Aha!” moment that made us realize there had to be a better way to do sales.
My seminal cold call moment was in 1985. At that point in my sales career, I was an outside sales rep at Businessland, a computer retailer company, but we had to do a lot of inside prospecting to generate business. Every day followed the same routine.
My colleagues and I would get into the office a little late, because we didn’t truly want to be there. We’d look at our lists of numbers and sigh -- we knew we were in for another day of pain. We’d flip through a few pages of it, scanning the names and numbers of the people we had to call but didn’t want to.
Then, a little voice whispered in my ear: “Dan, you have to make payments on your car.” It was time to get down to business.
I started making my calls at 9:15 a.m. that day. For the next 70 minutes, I left 22 voicemails. I was bored out of my mind, trying to keep awake after reciting the same robotic script over and over again.
Finally, someone picked up. I was jolted back to the real world by the prospect of speaking to a real person.
“Hi, this is Dan Tyre from Businessland,” I said. “I’d love to talk to you today about -- ”
Click. They’d hung up on me.
Back to my list, and improbably, another person picked up. Two pickups in a row was unheard of. I recited the same shtick, and I got hung up on -- again.
At this point, I was feeling pretty low. Was I the biggest loser in the world? What was I even doing here? I know now that top 2% salespeople don’t cold call because it’s ineffective and awful, but back in 1985 I just felt like a blemish on humanity.
This is the stupidest thing ever, I thought. I’m not doing anything positive here. I’m just wasting my time.
And then -- the cold call that blew my mind. I was still dialing down my list, when Wayne picked up. Here’s how the conversation went:
“Wayne, this is Dan Tyre from Businessland,” I said. “I’m calling to tell you about our new discount on PCs. I’m interested in talking about how you buy PCs, how many PCs you have, and why Businessland is the best way to purchase PCs.”
Wayne just sat there. He didn’t hang up or say anything -- he just sat on the other end of the phone.
“Wayne, are you there?” I asked.
Wayne paused. Then … “I’m here,” he said.
Holy crap! I thought. Somebody’s actually listening to me.
Before I’d gathered my thoughts, Wayne spoke again.
“Dan, why are you calling me?” he asked.
I didn’t miss a beat.
“Because I want to let you know about what Businessland is doing!” I answered as quickly as possible.
“Dan, do you know anything about me?” Wayne asked.
I realized I wasn’t dealing with your average Joe. Wayne was listening to me, but he was also pushing back.
At this point, there were two things I could have said. I could have told him I did know who he was -- that he was the president of his company, which I knew because I’d gotten his name and number from a purchased list of financial services companies, or I could be honest. I opted to be honest.
“No,” I responded.
“Okay …” Wayne said slowly. It felt like he was torturing me. “Dan, is this really a good use of my time?”
“Yes!” I blurted out. “I want to tell you about Businessland!”
Wayne wasn’t having any of my nonsense.
“Stop,” he said. “Dan -- is this really a good use of your time?”
I’d just been schooled. It obviously wasn’t a good use of my time to try and steamroll prospects I knew nothing about into listening me recite a list of Businessland’s latest discounts.
My call with Wayne was a seminal moment in understanding that even before I picked up the phone, I was approaching sales in the wrong way just by believing that it was about me and what I was selling. I should have made it about Wayne and all my other prospects, by taking the time to find out about the companies and industries I was calling into.
The 1980s were the beginning of scripts that began to reflect this changing mindset. A sample script began to sound less like the conversation I’d just recounted, and more like this:
Hi Wayne, this is Dan Tyre from Businessland. I’m calling because you’re in the Boston area and I know your company is in financial services, and Businessland works with many businesses like yours.
A script like that still doesn’t provide much value to the prospect, but it was the beginning of understanding that we needed to give our prospects a human experience.
Wayne, if you’re out there somewhere reading this, thank you. Thank you for teaching me to use my brain before I called prospects, and for showing me that a salesperson’s job isn’t to always be closing -- it’s to always be helping.
Originally published Mar 1, 2016 8:30:00 AM, updated June 11 2021