Do a quick Google image search for 'cold calling' and the results are quite illuminating. Half of the stock photos are impossibly smug, and the other half convey unbearable frustration.
A touch exaggerated, perhaps, but it speaks to some basic truths about the practice. Simply put, people find it annoying. If you’ve ever received one of those incessant calls about mis-sold PPI, you’ll know exactly why: they’re impersonal, they make baseless assumptions, and they occur at all hours of the day. According to sales evangelist Jill Rowley, 'cold calling is dead.'
But is it?
It’s always wise to be wary of sweeping pronouncements. Sales calls have their problems, to be sure, but they lie more in the tactics than the strategy. No customer is ever going to be happy to receive an irrelevant call at an inopportune moment, and no sales representative is going to be altogether happy about wasting most of their time chasing dead ends.
There are, however, other ways to call, and the most successful rely on an understanding that the modern customer expects a different kind of approach. According to research from Infosys, 86% of consumers say that 'personalisation' is an important part of their decision-making process. In other words, if you can adapt your approach to their specific preferences, you may well be rewarded with sustained sales success. By focusing on the three 'Rs' of relevance, research, and relationships, you can simultaneously impress your customers and boost your revenues.
'Quality over quantity' is a cliché, but one particularly pertinent to modern sales. Having a vast list of prospects to call is nice and everything, but if the overwhelming majority have no interest in your product, having their details is next to useless.
Too many businesses – and nearly all call centres – are ignorant of this. Their approach to sales is, essentially, to fire a pistol at the night sky in the hope of hitting a pigeon: it’s theoretically possible to make the one-in-a-thousand shot, sure. But it’s not likely, and you’d be hard pressed to do it twice in a row.
Precision targeting is always better than firing from the hip. Before anyone in your business picks up a phone, remove anyone who you know for a fact won’t be willing or able to buy: consumers in foreign countries, businesses that are too small or too unprofitable to make use of your product – any individual or company that doesn’t qualify.
Your remaining pool of prospects will be shallower, to be sure, but they’ll typically be more receptive to your telephone advances.
Having sieved out the unworkable and unviable, it’s now time to focus on those that remain. Alas, some of these prospects still won’t make a purchase, but if enough of them pick up the phone, you can still do very well indeed.
Personalisation also involves doing a little online legwork (or handwork, I suppose). This emphatically does not mean following them on social media and making them feel uncomfortable: ringing up to say things like “I saw your 17.24 tweet and I agree wholeheartedly, please buy my thing” is always going to feel overfamiliar and intrusive.
But if you have information about them in your CRM, you might be able to draw some reasonable conclusions about their preferences: optimal times to be contacted, preferred devices – PCs, smartphones, fax machines, carrier pigeons, whatever – and more.
If you’re better-informed than your competition, you’ll start the conversation at an immediate advantage.
Of course, once you’ve successfully contacted a prospect, you shouldn’t stop at the one conversation. Every sales call should be treated as the beginning of an ongoing, productive, and profitable arrangement: new business is nice; repeat business is better.
Consider opportunities for complementary sales: if you’re an office supplies company, this might be as simple as offering discounted computer mice in a package deal with keyboards. If you’re a food and drink company, you might be able to sell large quantities of sour cream alongside guacamole. If customers are going to buy these things anyway, they’d generally prefer not to buy them from multiple different sources. They want to build a relationship with your organisation – don’t make it hard for them. Be aware of trends on an individual and market-wide level, and tailor your service to them.
Even if potential customers don’t buy, you’ll accumulate more information about them – and, over time, you’ll get a fully-formed idea of their specific likes and dislikes.
Don’t freeze out the cold call
Customers are people, and expect to be treated as such. It’s hardly a radical notion, but one that businesses should start taking more seriously. Customers have no interest in dealing with sales teams that have nothing meaningful to offer them, or appear to care for nothing more than their commission payment.
I’ve found the three Rs to be a useful mnemonic device, but the real mantra for sales calls success is no more sophisticated than this: do the work. Don’t shirk a little research, don’t call anyone who doesn’t want to hear from you, and don’t disappear off the face of the earth once they’ve signed on the dotted line.
By all means, call cold – but do so with a little courtesy and common sense.