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Warming Up to Cold Calls

When I was nine, I made my first cold call. It was February in Spokane, Washington, and my mother bundled me up in a marshmallowy hooded parka, moon boots, and mittens that turned my hands into paddles. Thus safeguarded, but not exactly dressed for sales success, I galumphed over to the house across the street. I thumped on the bell and waited nervously for Mrs. Bowman to materialize at the door. She was one of the friendliest neighborhood moms, a trait that made her the ideal prospect for my spiel, the one I'd been rehearsing in the medicine cabinet mirror. "Hi, I'm Nancy! Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies? This year we have delicious vanilla-filled, chocolate-filled, mint, and shortbread!" Still, I worried that Mrs. B. wouldn't know I was there on official business, since my green uniform and constellation of proficiency badges were engulfed by all that parka; what if she hoo-hahed me off her porch? I'd just die! But she smiled at me in her neighborly way and said she'd take two boxes -- one chocolate, one shortbread. Voila! I had my order, but even better, I'd done the deed: I'd survived the cold call, the ghastliest chore in all of marketing.

Plenty of grown-ups (professional salespeople included) freeze up at the very idea of cold calls. If you're one of them -- if you flat out, big time, despise making cold calls, if prospecting makes you want to throw up -- well, stay with me here, because you're going to feel a whole lot better in a minute, though I know that's cold comfort to some of you.

If you want to understand what a cold call is, exactly, and why it scares the ever-living crap out of perfectly able adults, a good place to start is with a dictionary-style definition. A cold call is a personal visit or telephone call to somebody you don't know, or know only slightly, for the purpose of selling that person something. I used to think that what makes a cold call cold is that it's foisted upon a complete stranger, a name plucked out of the phonebook; I've since learned that cold calls can be somewhat less random and considerably less icy. The most typical cold call might be called a "cool call," where your prospect's name is already familiar to you (like my Mrs. Bowman), or it's somebody you met last week at a reception, or maybe it's a company whose brochure you picked up at a trade show. True, there's still no relationship to speak of -- you've still got to contact somebody who doesn't really know you and might not want to hear from you. But narrowing the field makes it more likely you'll keep at it, and, most important, it gives you a sense of control over a daunting process.

The thing about cold calling is that it's a form of personal, not mass, marketing. It requires a one-to-one physical presence or telepresence. But precisely because this is personal selling, you risk getting the cold shoulder each time you get up the nerve to prospect. That can make you feel vulnerable and tense, which explains why you'll do almost anything to avoid it.

Of course, there are some cold calls that would send anyone into cardiospasms. A brain surgeon, for one, teleselling her wares -- any surgeon, now that I think of it. Ditto mental health professionals, priests, some lawyers, and all dentists. Anyone whose trade depends heavily on private referrals or the ability to keep secrets should stay away from cold calling or they'll besmirch their good name. Fortunately, that leaves a rather large group for whom cold calling can be an enormous boon.

To find out what it takes to be a winning cold caller, I talked with Bill Truax, an IP who specializes in what he calls the BLITZ Call® system, "an easy-to-learn, simple-to-do, low-key, measurable, repeatable method for growing your business." Hey, now, I thought, that's for me! Bring it on.

First, take a breath. If you've worked yourself into a cold sweat about cold calling, well, Truax feels your misery. He knows all about inviting discomfort and risking despair. "Prospecting is uncomfortable. Let's face it, we're all inundated by telemarketers who cold call on everything. We hate being on the receiving end, so we don't want to do it," he says. It's dread that thwarts cold calling -- a fear of not being perfect, of being yelled at, of making a fool of yourself. Some barriers are psychological, and there are people whose emotional makeup simply doesn't lend itself to the special stresses and strains of selling. But here's a surprise: attitude (what you're willing to do) isn't everything. Maybe more important is careful preparation and training (what you're able to do). That's swell, because it means that you and I, sensitive souls that we are, aren't excluded from the possibility of salesmanship, that we're still in the game.

In other words, capability begets confidence. Knowing how doesn't erase the fear, but it makes it so much easier to stomach. That's where the system comes in. True to its name, it takes about 30 seconds to deliver the pitch that Truax has honed over three decades.

This is what Truax recommends as a guide. Think of it as a short script that you must -- I repeat, must -- know cold. Memorize it. Seriously. If you don't, you'll be more concerned about what line you've forgotten or fact you've fumbled than you can ever be about your customer. Suppose, for example, I'd been coached properly in my Girl Scout days. Here's how my little cookie pitch might have gone. "Hi, my name is Nancy Austin. I live across the street, and I'm a member of Girl Scout Troop No. 474. We specialize in preparing girls to be valuable, contributing members of society and the world. I know you weren't expecting my call today, so I won't take up any of your time. What I'd like to do is set up a time to stop back and visit with you to talk about scouting, and how our cookie sales make it all possible. When would be a good time -- middle of the week, end of the week? Morning or afternoon? What's best for you?" The trick is to deliver these six lines all the way through, zero breaks, and to allow no opening for the prospect to respond. Half the time, you get to talk to them right then, no future appointment necessary, Truax reports. "I know this works," he says. "Don't analyze it to death. Do it." You get the idea. When a prospect realizes you're not trying to sell anything right then and there, she loosens up. Then take your best shot.

Suppose you're face to face with a forbidding gatekeeper -- say, a savvy receptionist who's trained to keep interlopers at bay. What do you say then? How about something like this: "Hi, I need your help. My name is Nancy Austin. I'm a Girl Scout with Troop 474. I've never sold our cookies to you before, and I'd like to change that situation. Who would you suggest I talk to so I can start the process?"

That's the prospecting part, Truax says. "Then you have to switch to selling," he tells me. "Move into questioning mode." He means open-ended questions -- the ones that start with who, what, when, why, how, or where. The point is to be ready when the prospect, knocked out by your 30-second pitch, responds by saying, "I have a few minutes right now. Let's talk." If your mind goes blank when a prospect suggests a conversation right now, the solution is simple. Write down two or three open-ended questions and then practice them until you're sick of hearing yourself. That's the only way. "Simply 'learning' the concept won't work," Truax reminds me. "I understand the concept of golf, but my performance reveals a lack of preparation and practice." Same deal here.

And, finally, one more "p": perseverance. Don't quit too soon. Keep in mind that study after study shows the same thing -- that people buy after the third call, so be ready to call three times. At least. "Most people just give up after the second try," Truax says. "Follow-up is simple, but you gotta do it regularly. Without a follow-up system, don't even think of starting this."

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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