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Make a Cold Call That Works: 4 Steps to Prepare

Cold calling is hard enough when you're calling "out of the blue." Here's how to lay the groundwork in advance.

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Cold calling is difficult, especially when you're calling "out of the blue." Even if you're selling something that could massively improve a customer's life, save money, and help build his or her business, most people prefer to drive their own buying process.

That's why it's easier to sell when a prospect has already tooled around on your website and downloaded some information.  If you're following a lead, you can assume that there's some interest and a call to discuss possibilities is more likely to be welcome.

Sometimes you don't have that luxury, however. It may be necessary to "get your foot in the door" in order to make an important business contact or to pursue a potentially strategic customer.

That's why cold calling is still very much a part of the business world.

Use this process to "warm up" the prospect, to increase the likelihood of having a real conversation.

1. Research Your Target

The more you know about the person that you're trying to contact, the more likely it is that you'll be able to connect and have a meaningful conversation.  Use LinkedIn, other social media, search engines, and you own business experience to build a profile.  Ideally, this should include the following:

  • How does the target's industry work?
  • What role does the target's firm play in that industry?
  • Who are the target's main main competitors?
  • Who are the target's main competitors?
  • What is the target's professional background?
  • Who do you and the target know in common?
  • What corporate role does a person with the target's title usually play?
  • What events have taken place inside the target's firm that might create a need for your offering?

While you're doing this research, keep track of all potential contact points.  Specifically, you want the target's email addresses, physical addresses (office and home, if possible) and phone numbers (including fax).

You also want the same information for people who know the target, especially any gatekeepers (like the target's admin) and any colleague who might provide you with a introduction.

Do not worry if this list is incomplete, because in some cases it won't be possible to discover all of it.  However, you want to feel secure that you understand the target, why the target might want your offering, and how you are able to contact the target, beyond just making a cold call.

2. Craft an Opening Message

Now use what you have learned to craft a written message that will pre-position your "cold call" as something that's important and worthy of attention.  This written message should consists of three parts:

  • Subject-line "teaser" or headline
  • Paragraph of concise content that ties directly to the target's business concerns
  • Statement that you plan to call the target to discuss the matter

Do not let the message get "salesy."  Use the tone and vocabulary that you would expect to find within an internal memo sent inside your target's firm. Emphasize how, from the target's viewpoint, you can help solve a problem or achieve a goal.

Remember, you're not really selling at this point.  You're simply positioning the fact that you're going to contact the target to discuss a matter of importance.  Here's an example:

Supply Chain Integration--Learning from Cisco

I noticed on the news that your company recently acquired Acme Components.  My company, Supply Chain Solutions, recently did a study of how Cisco improves its supply chain efficiency after an acquisition.  What we learned might prove useful as you move forward with the merger, so I'll be contacting you shortly you to discuss whether we can help.

3. Lay the Groundwork

Using that message, send an email (to every relevant email address you've found) and a traditional hard-copy letter to the target.  Address the traditional letter by hand, so it won't look like junk mail.  If the account is really important, send the letter by Fedex. (You can still hand-address the letter envelope, but put it inside the larger Fedex envelope.)

Now send a variation of that message to other people who know the target, asking them to forward it on.  If there are gatekeepers, it's especially important that they see the message, even if they don't forward it.  If they know you're calling and that the subject matter is of interest to the target, they're much more likely to either put you through or even help you reach the target.

Do not worry about overwhelming the target with multiple versions of the message.  If the issue is important, the target will interpret the multiple messages as an indication that you're thorough (which is a good thing) and that you care enough to take special pains to reach them, personally.

4. Prepare for the Call

Once you're certain your multiple messages have arrived, it's time to actually make the "cold call."  Before doing so, though, you must prepare a succinct, verbal expression of the message that you've already crafted.  I explain how to do this in the post "How to Sell Using Voice Mail."

Now make the call.  If you land in voice mail, you know what to do.

If you get through to the admin, do not ask to be put through to your target! Instead, have a conversation about the best way to reach your target.  If you've laid the groundwork correctly, chances are the admin will either put you through or advise you on how to get through.

Important: If you're asking for a callback, do not let the situation devolve into a game of phone tag.  Let your target know when you'll be available to take the call, and then be ready to answer it, even if you're doing something else at the time. (I got this tip from speaker Andrea Nierenberg.)

Once you get through to your target, build upon the groundwork you've laid and the message you've provided to move to the next step--which typically would be setting up a more formal meeting to discuss needs and possible solutions.

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Last updated: Aug 7, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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