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The Art of the Cold Call

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

Doorstepping strangers used to be part of my job. Depending on the day and the news story, it veered between entertaining and ethically dubious.

(Sometimes it was both — I remember thinking in a dark moment that even Jeremy Clarkson had a right to a private life).

To many of the people I approached, I was a cold caller. Just another annoying reporter with a notepad and a list of idiotic questions.

So why do people bother with cold calling?

Cold calling has a bad reputation. When I started out as a copywriter, I heard a lot of established freelancers saying that they wouldn’t recommend it. They often suggested networking events and referrals from existing clients as a way of landing new business. But that assumes a reputation that can take years to build. It also reinforces an ecosystem in which businesses only ever work with people they know. As anyone who follows the tech sector could tell you, today’s unknown online business could one day evolve into an e-commerce giant. Cold calling, by email, phone or even direct mail, can help emerging companies get their foot in the door.

When opportunity knocks

Businesses often sit around waiting for inbound leads. Cold calling can be a more proactive approach that helps build relationships with interesting people. The kind of people you’d like to work with, now, or further down the line. And it can lead to some unusual opportunities. Even now, running an independent copywriting agency, Sterling Copy, I do approach people and SMEs I’m interested in working with. I’ve landed projects that wouldn’t have been possible without my journalistic experience of cold calling. So what did I learn that worked, and what should you avoid?

1.) Do your homework

Cards on the table. I’m not suggesting approaching people you know NOTHING about and going for the hard sell like Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. What I’m saying is that you should do your homework. Make sure that if you approach someone (by email or phone), you’ve got a good sense of who they are and what they do. Read their company blog. Listen to their podcast. Know what they’re working on and what sort of trends might affect their industry. SPELL THEIR NAME RIGHT.

2.) Don’t be a timewaster You’ve only got a few seconds to make an impression, so don’t waste it. Don’t start your cold call with an annoying question or an obscure riddle. It might have sounded great in marketing meetings but in a real conversations will often just irritate your prospect. Also: don’t be boring. Don’t sell something your prospect has already. If you’re sending a pitch by email, don’t make it generic. Make it relevant.

3.) Stop talking. Start listening When my cold calls ended in a door being slammed in my face, it was often because I was talking about myself too much. In truth, being genuinely interested in a prospect was the key to finding a connection. Asking a friendly question or starting with a genuine interest in their business can help you cut through any initial hostility. You need to see the people you approach as human beings, and for them to see you in the same way. Start by listening. Take an interest in them and they might return the favour.

4.) Know when to quit

I had an energy company doorstep me 6 weeks into lockdown. I explained that, being at home with a shielding pregnant wife, I wasn’t interested in their services. I emailed the business to ask them to remove my address from any future doorsteps. Their Sales Director replied, signing off with a pompous note that felt like an exercise in not knowing when to quit. We hope that, at a time when lots of people are using more energy than they would normally and customers are being warned of a potential energy shock in their bills on the horizon, our teams helping people find better deals for their energy bills are providing a welcome service.”

I haven’t replied. But I have mentally closed the door to all future enquiries from these guys. Know when to quit — it could make it easier to come back another time. Oliver runs Sterling Copy, a London-based independent copywriting agency.


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