Best practices for cold calling and sales letters
November 30, 2005 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I know lots of people have a real knack for sales, but I'm not one of them. I need tips on cold calling and intro/sales letters.

I recently started a small online marketing and market research business. When it comes to getting clients, I'm good at face-to-face networking but right now I'm living in the middle of nowhere and there are none of the local networking-type events you'd find in a normal city. So that leaves cold-calling, sales intro letters and the like, and neither are what I'd consider to be my strengths.

I would like to be able to write intro letters that are refined and polished, yet personal and subtle. However, when I try to write them, the results are stuffy and hit-you-over-the-head overt, and that's on a good day. It's the same with cold calls, too.

I'm looking for tips and examples of what to do when I am making cold calls and sending intro packages so that I don't sound spammy, like a used car salesperson or just like a bumbling jerk. Examples of intros and best practices for letter writing would be a huge help. In addition to learning definite "dos" I would also like to know the absolute "don'ts" so I can avoid making those mistakes.

I don't know if it matters, but ideal clients would be PR and marketing firms who don't already provide this set of services. If anyone has tips on best practices for marketing to PR and marketing firms, I'd be grateful for those, too.
posted by necessitas to Work & Money (12 answers total)
Having played that game in the past, my only piece of advice is: No matter how much work and sweat you put into your introduction letters and scripts for cold-calls, don't get your hopes up. This method fails so often, I've often completely discounted it in the past. Face-to-face meetings, if even it's without prior introduction, are still the preferred method by which companies create partnerships with other entities.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:24 AM on November 30, 2005

I was given a 5-minute intro to cold-calling once by someone whose coworkers called "the best in the business" of marketing his particular employer. His main tip was to have a smile on your face when you call, because that comes across in your voice. Act like you're calling a friend and you're helping them out and you're just really happy to provide this service -- probably some of the same things that make you successful face-to-face. Once they buy into you, they'll buy into your business.
posted by SuperNova at 12:27 PM on November 30, 2005

You will get a lot of voicemail boxes. Practice your message - keep it upbeat - speak clearly - especially speak clearly when leaving your name and phone number. You may even consider speaking more slowly when leaving the number. If I have to listen to a voice mail more than once to get the contact information, it seriously reduces the chances that I will call back.

Be persistent. The rep for the ISP we switched to left me like 12 voice mails before I called her back. Her tactic was to never say who she was with, and I got so annoyed after awhile that I called back. I don't know if I would recommend the anonymous company thing, but I do recommend persistence.

Try different times of the day. I don't know where I read this (it might have been askmefi), but lots of times decision makers and managers are in the office way earlier than 8am, and with no receptionist to chop block you, there is a chance you might actually get the boss.
posted by brheavy at 12:46 PM on November 30, 2005

My boss has occasionally bought services due to cold calls. I would NEVER buy a service from a cold call. So right there, accept that off the bat you're going to have a high failure rate and some of it is gonna depend on the temperment of the person you're calling, and whether they're even responsible for buying that service -- so clearly, having good leads is an important part of cold-calling.

That said, my boss is usually responsive to people who get on the phone and say "look, this is who we are, and this is what we can do for your business". He'll be interested if you tell him WHY he should buy the service -- I don't think he gives a shit about what you're selling, he wants to know what it can do for him. So calling and saying "Hi, do you need marketing services?", he'd probably say "well heck, I don't know, probably not", but if you call and say "Hi, I can provide you with X and Y and it will do Z for your business, are you interested?" he'll probably chat with you for a little to find out what you offer. One thing he doesn't seem to like doing, however, is explaining to people what exactly we do -- you're trying to sell me something, figure out whether or not I want it BEFORE you call me; on your time, not mine.

I'm not sure that there's people who can't sell -- there's certainly people who are better at it then others, but with practice, you'll improve. In that matter, I suspect that sales in similar to picking up people/flirting -- some people are born with it, and some people need to force themselves to learn the game (and sometimes you just get lucky).
posted by fishfucker at 12:52 PM on November 30, 2005

" In that matter, I suspect that sales in similar to picking up people/flirting -- some people are born with it, and some people need to force themselves to learn the game (and sometimes you just get lucky)."

In my opinion, sales is always and forever about closing. For me, learning to sell meant finding a way to put myself in a comfortable place from which to close. That's face-to-face stuff and, thus, cold-calling—literally calling, on the phone—was a nightmare for me and, in the end, I couldn't do it. I'm a pretty good salesperson otherwise. I need a relationship, though.

If necessitas isn't confident about sales in general, then this cold-calling will be very hard. I got the same advice as SuperNova, and it's good advice. You need to sound friendly and self-assured, but more than anything else you have to make these letters and calls effective which means being more aggressive that you want to be, probably. You'll get a lot of rejection and your hit rate will be very low. It's a game of numbers.

But fishfucker is especially right when he says "so clearly, having good leads is an important part of cold-calling." It almost seems a cliche, something from "Glengarry, Glen Ross", but cold-calling is so hard and ovewhelmingly unsuccessful, that the quality of the leads make a huge difference. I'm inclined to think that the time you spend getting the best leads will be the most rewarding. So what you're going to have to do if you're starting with nothing, as it sounds like, is to work the numbers until you get some hits and then network from them.

I know that I'm (we're, so far) not answering your exact question, which was how to write an effective introductory letter. But I'm inclined to think that there's no really good way to write the letter but there are lots of bad ones. You're not going to accomplish that much from a letter. Rarely will a cold-call letter generate a sale all by itself. But a bad letter could make a bad impression that you'll never be able to recover from. So just make sure that it doesn't suck, that's it's pleasant and professional and a starting point you can feel comfortable working from.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:21 PM on November 30, 2005

First, learn ALL ABOUT THE INDUSTRY. Trends. Opportunities. Threats. Knowledge is power.

I'd suggest trying to get in a dialogue by asking questions. Don't go straight to sales in the first contact. Find out about their business. What challenges do they face as it pertains to your business? What are their challenges in general? When have they been the most successful? Why? Take notes on each person you speak to. Including little things...sports teams, just returned from vacation in Europe. This type of thing can help in the future

Yes, you want that person as a customer, but if you stress that you want to build relationships and help them into perpetuity you're on your way to having customers for life.

When you get rejected, politely thank them for their time and ask if it's ok to contact them from time-to-time to see how they're doing. At this time you want to find out how things are going by referring to the answers you got the first go around.


Read the trades/Wall Street Jour./NY Times/ Local Biz Journals. Email articles to rejectors/clients/other people religiously, "Thanks again for the meeting last month. You mentioned X in our meeting and I saw an article about X in yesterday's WSJ and I thought you'd be interested..." Stay in their ear. They may be able to reject you forever but they have associates who need what you have and if you show that YOU HAVE THEIR BEST INTERESTS IN MIND you'll be on your way.

Join an ad club or trade group in your area. Networking pays in our business.

Always send handwritten thank you notes on good stationery.

Don't ever take your current customers for granted. It's easier to keep the ones you have than get new ones.

Good luck.
posted by UncleHornHead at 2:12 PM on November 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Building on Uncle, above - Find out *who* you need to talk to - Chasing major accounts is a *lot* easier if you know the name of the person you want to speak to, rather than just asking for the X,Y or Z

If you have that information to hand, it opens the next stage of dialogue rather than the protective shields coming down by a Sub-Ordinate believing they are doing the right thing by putting a sales call off...

I would counsel *NOT* leaving messages on VM - you leave yourself with nowhere to go but becoming an annoying caller rather than a persistent one - by all means leave a message after you have called 5 times and not got an answer though...

And for verbally, finally; - the smile comment way at the top here - your demeanour and confidence is what you are selling initially - be an attractiv4e person on the phone, and the rest will follow.

Letters is a toughie in my experience - especially mailshot / cold - your strike rate will be limited to *very* small numbers statistically speaking - We used to see an average of 1-3% take-up in our field - and so far better was the path personal contact / refusal to see / close by send information / follow-up call. It was far more cost effective.

Best Wishes with your endeavours!
posted by DrtyBlvd at 4:28 PM on November 30, 2005

Cold calling is a numbers game, pure and simple - depending on your product or service, I've heard that it's as low a success rate as 3% - in my industry it's more like 7-10%. I don't cold call to make a sale - I cold call to at least get in front of the prospect - if I can qualify him.

The idea when you're cold calling is to qualify. The best salespeople in the world spend the majority of their time in front of qualified prospects consulting and closing.

Thus, the cold-calling is a means to an end. Your bigger concern would be the criteria your prospect uses to buy based on your goals. For example, I automatically eliminate anyone who will not be making a purchasing decision within 180 days - they go to the follow-up file. If you can get them on the phone, you've got five minutes to make them want to meet with you, roughly. You also have five minutes to determine if this prospect is worth your time.

Qualifying them as buyers, and moving on if they aren't is, in my humble opinion, the single most important skill for a salesman to have.

Be friendly, know their industry, know what they need. My boss refers to it as "finding their pain" so you can solve the problem for them.
posted by TeamBilly at 6:11 PM on November 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Additional thoughts. Sales is a skillset...a trade which can be taught. It's a set of skills anyone can learn. And, if you work hard at it, there is no career path as financially rewarding, and fun. There's a reason top notch salesmen make more than the CEO they're employed by.

I'm not one of them, but I'm working on it.

It's not an art, black magic or voodoo.

Don't use the leading question like, "If 100 of my widgets could save you money every year, you'd be interested, right?"

That kind of stuff makes you a hustler and it's insulting to the prospect. Treat them as intelligent people.
posted by TeamBilly at 6:14 PM on November 30, 2005

"Don't use the leading question like, 'If 100 of my widgets could save you money every year, you'd be interested, right?'"

It's also a bad question because even though it's hard for them to say "no" to the question, it does give them the opportunity to think about how they wish they could say "no" and get rid of you. :)

"Qualifying them as buyers, and moving on if they aren't is, in my humble opinion, the single most important skill for a salesman to have."

Qualifying makes all the difference between a sale being hard or easy, and repeat business. 90% of what you do should be qualifying. But I still think that closing is the most important skill because a good portion, perhaps the greater portion, of the people who you really qualify well still will not make a buying decision without you closing the deal.

In my opinion, the best way to be successful at sales is to think of yourself as a consultant hired to solve your customer's problem—that's basically the qualifying stage. You can feel good about that, you're helping the customer. But also you need to close and that's harder to do. However, you can also think about that in terms of helping the customer because, frankly, a lot of people have a bit of fear about making a buying decision and actually want or even need the salesman to make it easy for them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:44 PM on November 30, 2005

Be very nice (especially if you're going to skip the voicemail and talk to a general secretary.) Ask them if the person takes sales calls. If you're regulated to ANYONE's voice mail say your number TWICE. I can't repeat this enough. I'm stunned when someone blurts out their number and I'm looking for a pen still.

If you get a human being on the phone, who listens for even a moment, if you can, get them to agree to meet you in person. Live moments are key vs. phone.

One of the strongest sales techniques I've ever heard, is the idea that you want the person to object.

"We don't need your services"
"Are you happy with your current provider and the price you pay? If I could do a better job cheaper, would you be interested, or at least hear me out?"

Objections are the key to sales...because the customer will tell you exactly what you need to do to close the sale.
posted by filmgeek at 9:08 PM on November 30, 2005

Lots of good advice, thanks everyone. I really appreciate the help!
posted by necessitas at 9:18 AM on December 1, 2005

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