Cold Calling: The Ultimate Guide for Small Businesses
It’s much more than meets the eye — or ear.
If you watch a sales professional nail a cold call, it may seem so smooth, so effortless, that you simply think: “Wow, that person has a natural talent.”
But in fact, a great cold call is the result of a series of specific elements, all coming together into one stellar performance. Just like any performance, it takes rehearsal and experience to perfect.
The good news: Every part of it can be learned.
And it’s worth learning.
Cold calling is still necessary
Even with all the modern technology available, picking up the phone to do a cold call can be as useful as ever. In fact, it’s often the best way to cut through the noise and the fastest way to develop a direct rapport with a prospect.
Doing so instantly — with your words, your tone of voice and the emotions you convey — makes all the difference.
“It’s a great thing,” says EVENTup CEO Jayna Cooke, who was VP of business development and the top sales performer at Groupon. “It’s really important to make that connection. Cold calling is opening a conversation, more so than any email or Google Adword.”
But there’s a caveat: It’s more important than ever to warm up the call quickly.
With technology offering so many ways to communicate in short bursts, surrounding us with distractions and shortening attention spans, it takes quick and precise work to really get through to a prospect — to not just get them on the phone, but to get their focus, even for 15 seconds.
Excellent cold call techniques are a necessity.
In general, the goal is to move forward, and not sell your product or service, yet. Selling to businesses, a great advance from a cold call is to schedule a meeting, whether in person or over Skype. So in a very real sense, the next stage is what you’re “selling” on the call.
We’re providing these cold calling tips to help you make that meeting — that next stage — happen.
Maybe you don’t have to make cold calls, maybe you can run your business via networking, and intros? Maybe. Then again, even referrals from people you know are cold-ish at the beginning. It’s difficult to get 100% warm calls to begin with — calling a stranger, and advancing from there is a skill one needs to have in sales.
Scripting: Good or bad?
Some salespeople believe that having a script, and keeping it in front of you is a bad idea because it prevents you from seeming natural and could inhibit your ability to improvise. But in my years of experience at all levels — as a salesperson and leading sales teams — I’ve found the opposite is true.
A script is a template that guides you to do your absolute best. It helps you keep your message tight and compact, avoiding the emotional talk and verbal garbage so many people fall into on sales calls. The more adaptable your script — or set of scripts — the more natural you will feel. The whole point of a script is to know it by heart, and in a way it’s a constant process to get there.
To build your scripts, you first need to know what kind of language to use and what not to say. We give you a step-by-step breakdown on how to build your script at the end of this guide.
The starting point: Your difference maker
Going into a cold call, your goal must be to stand out. Not necessarily compared to all other salespeople out there but for this prospect right here, and right now. To make clear in a matter of seconds what makes you, and that you indeed are different.
Every cold call is a salesperson’s elevator pitch.
And what works in an elevator pitch? Something different. Something that stands out.
Different captures people’s attention. Different makes people curious. Different can shake up someone’s day.
The good news — most of the time it’s being the real you that makes you different, and not a desperate attempt to be “like all these great salespeople”.
There are two crucial elements to creating your difference maker:
- Personalize: Show why you ended up on the phone with this person specifically.
- Emphasize: Focus on highlighting proven results for your service or product.
Let’s break these down.
Making it personal
If you’re lucky, you may have had a mutual acquaintance or contact introduce you to the prospect. But remember our cold calling definition: “A cold call is one that is made to a potential customer with whom you have no direct pre-existing relationship.” So let’s focus on that.
And remember: If a prospect feels you’re just going through a long list of phone numbers, you’ve lost before you’ve begun. So it’s crucial to do your research in advance and find out whatever you can about the individual.
If you call a company to find out who the right person is for you to reach, get that person’s name and title — and then call back later.
Steve Richard, who runs Call Camp to train people in the art of the sales call, recommends prospecting by reaching administrative assistants starting in the mid-morning. A good time to call back to reach an executive directly is five minutes before the top of the hour, before the executive may be stepping into a meeting, Richard says.
But before you call back: Do your research. Use Google, LinkedIn and all the online tools at your disposal to learn something that characterizes the business.
Then use your knowledge in your first words on the call.
For example, let’s say you’re Glenn Gold with Alpha Services, and you’re calling Jan Silver at Beta Supplies. You might say
“Hi Jan. I’m Glenn Gold with Alpha Services. I’ve looked into your work at Beta, and I’m reaching out to businesses that have experienced high growth.”
“Hi Jan. I’m Glenn Gold with Alpha Services. I’ve seen Beta has been scaling up considerably, and I was hoping to speak with you for a few minutes.”
You’ve now personalized and shown that you know something about them. This isn’t just flattering, it’s a crucial part of showing you’re respectful of their time.
Now show the prospect why he or she should have a conversation with you.
Emphasize proven results
The chances are good that the prospect doesn’t know about you or your company. You need to make clear that you’re not only legit, but have the results to prove it.
You can do this by citing your work with other, similar businesses. And you can do it by playing up any and all positive publicity your company has earned.
“We’ve worked with more than 50 other companies about your size and increased their sales. I wanted to let you know about us.”
“Ever since there was an article about us in (the local paper), we’ve been working with lots of small businesses to increase their sales. I wanted to let you know about us.”
I learned this need to establish legitimacy in perhaps the most challenging of sales environments: door-to-door.
I began my career selling textbooks that help elementary school children. As someone opened a door, I’d personalize by explaining that I was stopping by homes where there are children. And I’d emphasize results by holding up a sheet showing a list of people who had bought from us in the area. Seeing that made people feel more comfortable, and take an interest.
Of course, with phone calls people don’t know whether you have such a sheet or not. But your business surely has some successes it can cite. Use that, in the fewest and most impactful words possible, at the top of the call.
By this point, you’re about 10-20 seconds into your call.Before you do anything else, you need to make sure the prospect has time to speak with you. And this is where a great many salespeople make a big mistake — they take a prospect’s answer literally.
Let’s say you ask: “Do you have five minutes?” The prospect may say yes, but not really mean it. Usually they’re busy working on something and not able to focus on the call. It’s up to you to work out whether they’re just being polite. If they are and you miss it, you’re wasting your own time and theirs by proceeding with the call.
View this time-check as an opportunity to be different from other salespeople. You can show the person on the other end of the call how much you respect their time and display confidence by not launching into a conversation that they don’t want to have right now. It actually shows you care, respect your time as much as theirs, and that you’re confident.
“Who knows, we might be a really good fit at the end, but I don’t want to take your time if you’re busy. Do you have five minutes to speak now? If not, I’d rather call you back at a more convenient time.”
“I’d hate to waste your time. I also want to make sure we’re not missing the chance to help you grow your business. If you have five minutes, I have two questions to help us figure out whether we should talk any further, really.”
You may be skeptical of these lines. You may think that having the person on the phone is your best chance to hook them and that they won’t answer when you call back. And the language may seem awfully forward.
But I’ve used these lines many times in cold calling, for businesses big and small. I’ve guided my sales teams to use them as well. They work.
In fact, if we start to speak a bit but the prospect sounds distracted, I’ve even gone a step further:
“Are you in the middle of something that you would rather be in right now? Because if you are, I don’t want to take your time right now. I want to catch you when you have five minutes. Should I call you back in 30 minutes or an hour?”
When prospects hear that you’re not just grabbing your first chance to launch into your script, but truly only want to speak if they have the time, they’re surprised or even intrigued. This in turn makes them curious about you, and your work.
Further, being sympathetic to their schedule and making sure they know they are in control go a long way to establishing a relationship of trust.
So if you’ve successfully executed the steps so far, then you have succinctly:
- Established who you are
- Made clear that your product or service has a track record of success
- Shown a striking level of confidence, and remarkable amount of care for everyone’s time
Now, the focus of the call shifts to the prospect, and how you may be able to help them..
Analyze your prospect
If the prospect agrees to talk with you for a few minutes, it’s now up to you to make sure that he or she is worth your time. You will not be able to help just anyone, or any business. It’s time to start discovering it.
Some of this is purely pragmatic and technical. You need to confirm that this person makes the purchasing decisions about the kind of product or service you offer — and, if not, whom you should speak with instead.
Check interest level
But even if you have reached the right person, there might simply be no chance that this prospect will take any interest. Here’s how to find out.
Let’s say Alpha Services specializes in IT support. You can ask:
“When you look at your business right now, do you feel that your IT support — the way it runs, or it’s quality — could be better for your customers?”
“At Beta Supplies, among other things, how important is it to improve IT support?”
Unfortunately, at this stage in a call many salespeople instead ask something very general, such as: “Hey, do you want your business to grow?”, and many feel that now is the time to launch the “this-is-what-we-do” demo-rocket. That just leads prospects to want to get off the phone.
But when you focus on the specifics, you’re more likely to get an honest answer.
Some people say: “I don’t think there’s a lot of room for improvement there — I think the problem is elsewhere.” In that case, the prospect is probably not worth your time. But — it is worth the time to just ask, “Where do you think the problem is?”, and see how they define the boundaries of IT support.
But many people say: “Yes, there is room for improvement.”
In that case, you move forward with the call — confident it is between two willing participants in a dialogue.
Listen to words and emotions
Now it’s time for you to listen to your prospect. Invite them to tell you as much as they wish about what their needs are, and what kind of improvements they’re looking to see.
The goal here is two-fold:
- Get as much information as possible to tailor your pitch for a near future meeting.
- Build a rapport so they know you really care what their needs are.
Make sure to stop before going too deep into areas better left to explore during a longer call, or a meeting.
To accomplish this, you need to pay close attention not only to what the prospect is saying, but to what they’re feeling. Listen to their inflections and tone of voice, the pace at which they talk, and more.
Use your intuition. The more you do cold calls, the more you’ll develop the ability to feel where the prospect is coming from.
Hear the emotions behind their words. Are they stressed? Worried? Confused about how well part of the business runs?
If there’s no emotion at all, you haven’t quite hooked them yet. So try to get a sense of whether this issue feels important to them.
“It sounds important. Is this something that you want to take a little bit more time to discuss, to learn how we could help address, and hopefully fix this?”
Asking such a question gives the prospect time to think and decide just how important it is on their terms — and their answer should give you a sense of whether the conversation is worth pursuing.
As a prospect opens up, be sure to do relatively little talking yourself. When you do speak, be straightforward, honest and reassuring. Explain that you’ve worked with others who have these same challenges, and you’ve figured out some really good solutions.
Land a meeting
Time for your moment of truth. Land that meeting. Make the next stage happen. (And take a step closer to a potential sale!)
The best way to reach the next stage is to simply emphasize that it’s the natural (or necessary) next step, and will benefit you both.
“We could talk more now, but here are a few specific things better suited to an in-person meeting.”
Then list some of the topics you’d cover, and what you’d be able to show. You may get a yes. Or you may find that the prospect seems ambivalent. In either case, you can add:
“I wouldn’t suggest it, though, if I didn’t think it would be worth both of our time.”
Call out B.S.
A prospect may say: “Well, I want to think about it.”
That’s almost always B.S.
There’s not nearly enough information exchanged to actually think about something. Can you imagine anyone hanging up the phone, putting on a thinking cap and ruminating on what you just discussed?
Even if they might, what if it’s something you can answer? So never leave it there. Instead, try to get more information. I’ve asked:
“What do you want to think about most?”
The prospect may say they want to look more into how your offer matches their needs. They’ll often ask you to send an email. Be direct. I’ve responded:
“Do you really want me to send you an email, based on how little I know of actual pain-points you want to solve?”
Say it with a smile. When you smile, people can hear it.
And here’s the thing: People are much more respectful toward you when you help them get out of their own B.S. They laugh a little. You’d be surprised how often they’ll say something like: “You know what? Sure, let’s meet.”
Sometimes, a prospect will say they’re simply too busy to meet over the next couple of weeks. Again, be direct in response. I’ve said:
“OK, but do you want to do it? Because if you do, we could schedule it for a later time.”
The prospect is often honest in response, and agrees to a meeting.
When you ask these kinds of questions, some prospects will acknowledge their skepticism. They may say: “I don’t think it’s worth spending time and money on this right now.”
Respond to this by sharing your own perspective. I’ve done this many times. I’ve said:
“Listen, being in this business for a while, I haven’t seen anybody more skeptical than me. Of course we have to talk more about your concerns, but from experience, I’ve found that our product can add a lot of value to businesses like yours. You might decide it can’t, but there’s a good chance it can and it’s worth exploring this potential.”
When they’re unsure, your being convinced that it’s worthwhile is often the key to securing a meeting.
And when you get to the close, here’s how to handle it.
Have a limited schedule
If the prospect is willing to set up a meeting, don’t make yourself available at any hour on any day — even if you are. Tell them you have a packed day the next day, and list a few specific hours you have available the next day, or even the following week. This shows that you’re in demand.
But do find a time that works for you both soon — while the conversation is still fresh in mind.
Once you’ve got a time set, get off the phone. It would be a waste of time to continue. Once the next stage is confirmed, it’s time for both of you to move on to other tasks.
How to build your script
Using this guide and all the best practices you’ve learned, write down the most succinct version of each of these elements to come up with your ideal dialogue. Have it in front of you when doing your calls.
To improve, record audio of your part of the cold calls you make. Go back and listen to yourself. See what worked and what didn’t. What new lines or tweaks did you try out that were successful?
Take all the lines that work and divide them into two lists:
- Lines that moved the call forward smoothly to scheduling a meeting
- Lines that won over a reluctant prospect
Use these two lists to create two scripts.
Green light and yellow light scripts
Your green light script is for when things are moving smoothly along the road, toward that goal of a meeting.
The yellow light script is for when the prospect shows reluctance — as when you’re driving, it’s a sign that a red light will follow. Your efforts will be stopped.
Your goal with the yellow light script is to steer the prospect back over to the lane with the green light.
Build your confidence
All of this, of course, may sound easier than it is. Sales is a grueling field of work. No matter how great you are at your job, you will fail most of the time. Don’t get too down if every prospect does not feel the way you do. Top salespeople keep plugging away — refining their process to get better and better.
Tammy Stanley, who runs a training firm called The Sales Refinery, compares this process to stepping up to bat. As you hit the ball and start to round the bases, you let go of “the trouble thoughts” holding you back.
If you follow the steps in this guide, you’ll hit your groove. You’ll see your successes increase.
Still, just like everyone, you’ll have days when you may fall into a rut. A series of rejections can leave you feeling despondent.
Prospects can sense frustration in your voice. So when you’re not feeling confident, I recommend taking a little break, resting and recharging. Use the time to read sections of inspirational books such as Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino, Albert Gray’s The New Common Denominator of Success, and Brian Tracy’s The Psychology of Selling.
To get into a great mindset, I’ve even listened to a recording of one of my own cold calls. It’s not so much the words I’m listening to, but the confidence and emotions they convey.
In the end, those who master the art of the cold call aren’t just great at stringing together all these elements. They’re also experts at bouncing back and dialling the next number.
Why not also check out our guide: The Cold Email: Experts Reveal How to Get Noticed