Sales and Sales Management Blog

April 7, 2008

Never a Cold Call, Always an Introduction


I’m a salesman.  I sell sales training, management consulting, coaching and speaking presentations.  My clients are companies, individual salespeople, business owners, and business and industry associations.

I prospect.  I have to if I want to stay in business.  I, like every other salesperson, am constantly looking for potential new business.

I also market my services and myself.  I have to invest a significant amount of my time and effort in getting my message out to potential clients.  The marketing I engage in takes many forms–from writing articles to giving interviews to writing newsletters to attending events and functions to networking and seeking referrals.

In other words, my business is exactly like yours.  I engage in the same activities you do.  I face the same obstacles, the same setbacks, the same disappointments, and enjoy the same victories.

Whether you sell insurance, parking lot maintenance, copiers, communication systems, or the most sophisticated computer networks, business-to-business selling is in its essence the same for all of us.  The details are different.  The process may be vastly different.  The sales cycle may be months or even years apart.  But the basic essence is the same.  And the most basic is you have to have a prospect that will accept your efforts to connect with them.

Like almost every other salesperson, I must use the phone to connect with some of those prospects.  Nevertheless, I refuse to make cold calls.  In my opinion, there is hardly a more worthless use of time and energy than cold calling.  Cold calling is time consuming for the salesperson and it immediately signifies to the recipient of the call that the person making the call isn’t an expert in their field because most prospects assume that true experts aren’t sitting at a desk pounding the phone.

Yet, that creates a dilemma for me—there are prospects I can’t find a way to reach without picking up the phone and calling them.  Despite being a strong advocate of referral selling, networking, and developing referral partnerships, those methods, no matter how expertly I implement them, just can’t get me to every possible prospect that I’m interested in reaching.

Not having a way to connect through other means and refusing to cold call presents a bit of a problem.

Fortunately, there is a solution that allows me to NEVER make a cold call.  In fact, it almost always allows me to begin establishing a relationship with the prospect that I can expand and nurture over time.  In addition, this simple method allows me to gather a wealth of information about the company, their needs, their plans, and in many cases, key information about the person I’m about to speak to before I ever make the call.  Before I call I know whom I’m calling, why I’m calling, and I have a very good idea of where the conversation will be going.

Moreover, seldom do I have a voice mail message go unreturned.

What is the incredible system I use?

Actually, it is so simple and so obvious I almost hate to admit it.  But it works.  It takes the pressure off me, as well as off the prospect.  When I call, I’m simply doing follow-up work, fulfilling my obligation to one of the prospect’s employees.

Once I’ve identified a company to approach about any of my services, I do my homework.  I call three or four of the company’s salespeople.  My hope is to speak to a salesperson that has been with the company for only a short time, to another who is an old hand with the company, and one who is a top producer.

When I speak to these individuals, I am upfront with the purpose of my call.  I let them know who I am, why I’m calling them, what my intentions are regarding calling the company about my services, and request their permission to ask them some questions about the company and their experience with the company.  Seldom does anyone refuse speaking with me.  If they do, I’ll just call another individual within the company.

I ask a number of information gathering questions such as:
•    what type of sales training the company provides
•    their personal evaluation of the quality of the training
•    whether training is provided by outside vendors on in-house trainers
•    if they use outside trainers, what companies do they use
•    what training needs do they see the company has that aren’t being met
•    who in their opinion I should speak to about training
•    if there is anything else I should know prior to calling the person they suggested I call
•    prior to ending the call, I ask for permission to use their name when I make the call.

Three or four short calls—each will only last a very few minutes—give me a tremendous amount of information about the company and potential opportunities for me.  Often I learn a little bit of personal information about the person I’m about to call that helps me connect with them.  Typically, at least one and often two or three of the individuals will not only give me permission to mention their name but will encourage me to call, giving me a referral into the company.  Now, I’ve not only upgraded the call from a cold call to a warm call, but I’ve upgraded the warm call to a referral.

When I do call the company, I use the introductions provided by the salespeople to break the ice and gain credibility.  Those introductions turn the call into a conversation about their needs and observations rather than a sales pitch.

If I am directed to voice mail, I don’t panic.  I don’t hang up without leaving a message.  I don’t leave some misleading message hoping to trick someone into returning my call.  I leave a very brief factual message that introduces myself and mentions that salesperson X and salesperson Y asked me to call about some issues that concern them.  I almost always get a return call.

Naturally, the person I’m calling wants to know how and why his or her salespeople encouraged me to make the call.  Again, I don’t beat around the bush.  I tell them that I was doing my homework prior to making my introductory call.  The fact that I was willing to spend time learning something about the company, their needs, their salespeople, and their processes tends to impress the person with whom I’m speaking.

Seldom do salespeople take the time to be prepared before making a call.  Seldom do they find a way to turn a cold call into a referral.  So unusual is it that when someone calls who is fully prepared, the impression is not only positive but also deep and lasting.  Furthermore, by demonstrating my ability to find a positive, honest and effective way to connect with them that pricks their interest and almost demands they pay attention to me, they make the connection that I just might have something of value to teach their sales team.

Naturally, I don’t turn every call into a sale.  I do, however, begin the process of developing a positive and trusting relationship that will, hopefully, turn into a sale in the future.

My method of reaching the prospects that I otherwise cannot find another way of reaching doesn’t allow me to make tons of calls.  I give up quantity for quality.  And to tell you the truth, I’d much rather have an introduction to a quality prospect than sit and pound the phone hoping that sooner or later I’ll fall into an appointment.

No matter your product, you too can find individuals within your target companies who can give you the information you need—and their endorsement when you do make the call.  Getting past gatekeepers and gaining the prospect’s interest doesn’t have to be a game of deception or manipulation.  Investing a little time before calling your prospect opens doors, eliminates resistance, pricks interest, and helps begin the relationship building process.  Maybe you should also be concentrating on quality over quantity.

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10 Comments »

  1. Oh…so really you are using the Selling to VITO strategy. Love that book – an oldie but a goodie. The best part is that the strategy works. Thank you for articulating a new and intersting twist. I never would have thought of interviewing members of the sales team. Great idea!

    Comment by trish bertuzzi — April 7, 2008 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  2. I took a strategy Parinello outlines and simply took it another step–in my instance speaking with the end user to get both their take on the situation and their permission to use them as a referral. By getting their input, I have a very specific reason to call the decision maker, as well as having the referral.

    In my instance I speak with the sales team. If I were selling copiers, I would look to speak to the end users of the equipment and possibly someone associated with keeping the sucker running. If I were selling parking lot maintenance, I’d speak with anyone who parks in the lot. The idea is to simply get information about how the company currently uses my product or service (or doesn’t), the end user’s personal opinion of the company’s current situation and vendor, and any other relevant information–then I go for the referral.

    Yes, you’re right, it works great. No cold shoulders. No unreturned voice mail. No quick “not interested.”

    Comment by Paul McCord — April 7, 2008 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

  3. The best point that Paul makes here is in the quality versus quantity issue. Unfortunately most sales management still thinks that sales is a pure numbers game and all that is necessary is pounding the phone. With the plethora of information available on the internet (and other sources) it is nonsense to make pure cold calls any longer. Paul’s comments just take it to the next level.

    Comment by Scott Sheaffer — April 8, 2008 @ 7:38 am | Reply

  4. Paul,

    I find this a bit of a strange article. I mean I think the content is great. But aren’t you telling all of your competition who sells sales training and consulting exactly how you go about getting your business? Is that a wise move? What if they start doing exactly what you’re doing? How will you then be any different than anyone else?

    Thanks for the great strategy, but I have to wonder about whether it was a wise move for you.

    Comment by Tina Little — April 8, 2008 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  5. Tina,

    You’re right in the sense that I did reveal one of my strategies and any of my competitors can take it and use it. And on the surface it may not look like a wise move to have used my method of getting sales training and consulting business when I could have used an example from another industry and not revealed so much about my particular application.

    However, what would sever me the most would be for every sales training company to adopt this process because then my question to the prospect would be why would they want to hire a company that I had to teach how to prospect when they can hire the sales trainer’s sales trainer.

    Anyway, I appreciate your point but I don’t feel a threat in revealing my methods as there really aren’t any great secrets in selling and prospecting–just methods that work–and others that don’t. This one works.

    Comment by Paul McCord — April 8, 2008 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  6. Never a Cold Call, Always an Introduction « Sales and Sales Management Blog…

    Cold calling prospects is one of the biggest time wasters salespeople engage in. But there are still prospects you can’t reach by any other means than the phone. Here is a process that turns what would be a cold call into a referral call….

    Trackback by yearblook.com — April 9, 2008 @ 9:02 am | Reply

  7. Hmmm – surely (to be pedantic) what you’re doing is rather than not cold calling at all you’re making 3 “safe” cold calls to non-decision-makers to position yourself for a warmer call with the DM 😉

    Another interesting point is that this is very much counter to traditional wisdom which says to always go straight for the most senior executive/decision-maker for your product. The problem with that strategy is that your first call to a company (even a warm referral) is the time at which you know the least about them and their needs. So if you target the most senior executive first, then often you’re doing your basic information gathering on the senior executive’s time. It may well be far better to do this with more junior people so you are much better briefed before engaging the senior executive. Your strategy does just this.

    Ian

    Comment by Ian Brodie — April 10, 2008 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  8. Ian,

    Certainly you can look at it as making ‘safe’ cold calls in order to generate a warm referral. I don’t exactly see it that way. I see it as doing my research prior to calling my executive target. These are cold calls to the salespeople but they aren’t selling calls (with the exception of gaining their endorsement when calling the proposed decision maker). They are primarily reconnaissance calls.

    Regarding your second point, you’re exactly right that this eliminates some of the most basic information gathering that I would otherwise have to engage the decision maker’s time with. I do, however, review the information I’ve gathered with the decision maker to get his or her opinion. I don’t do this by asking them to agree or disagree with their employees. Rather I ask information gathering questions about the points that the salespeople have brought up. That keeps the decision maker from having to agree or disagree with his or her team members and gives them the freedom to answer based on their own perceptions.

    If their statements differ from their team members, I’ll ask a little more pointed question to clarify. It does, however, cut down on the information gathering time with the executive and helps me construct my questions prior to calling. Needless to say, I often have to change my questions based on the executives opinions, but at least I have a good place to start when I call and I still have the referrals with which to gain their attention.

    Comment by Paul McCord — April 10, 2008 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  9. Paul,

    Brilliant article! I started out as a outside sales rep for a school and used a similar technique of getting current students to referred me to their supervisors and training managers. For some reason it never occurred to me to call end users in the companies I had no “in” with though. Fortunately I had hundreds of students to work with so I was never short of people to call on, but this simple technique could have netted me an extra 10K a year!

    As always Paul, you were thought provoking and insightful!

    -Brad

    Comment by Brad — April 13, 2008 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

  10. Hi Paul, I like the approach. I am always looking to learn new things about prospecting, especially gaining the forthright permission to conatct the head decision makers. Thanks for the tips..

    Sean

    Comment by Sean Moss — February 9, 2009 @ 12:02 pm | Reply


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