Is Cold Calling Dead?



Like most sales professionals, I started my sales career in a job that required me to pick up the phone and cold call prospects in my territory.  Leaving hundreds of voicemails and being consistently hung up on isn’t anyone’s favorite thing, but the sense of accomplishment from picking up the phone and getting someone interested in your product or service makes it all worth it.

Each of us has a war story about that prospect we chased for a year who finally answered the phone and agreed to a meeting.  While 3 out of 10 makes you a hall of famer in baseball, 3 out of 100 in cold calling makes you a sales legend.  CSO Insights has the average at more like 1 in a 1000.

When I’m interviewing candidates, the question most often asked of me, in one way or another, is “What percentage of opportunities are driven by Marketing?”  As Bill Binch, VP of Sales here at Marketo, points out, this is asked not just at the sales rep level but also during executive interviews. This raises the question of who is responsible for creating qualified leads.  Before I came to Marketo, I would have been satisfied with a list of the names of people who had showed up to a trade show booth. I once even had a CFO who suggested that the sales team start calling on other CFOs (he would later tell us that he never answers his own phone or checks his voicemail). 

Anyway, while there is no shortage of opinions within an organization on what constitutes a lead and who it should come from, we can all agree that sales reps work most efficiently when they are talking with prospects who are raising their hands and asking questions about your product.

A few years ago, I started seeing blog posts, books, webinars, and articles that said cold calling was a waste of time, or even dead. While a few of these publications were written by sales pros, most of them were written by marketing professionals. Of course, at Marketo, cold calling is considered a bit of a profanity.  Our VP of Marketing, Jon Miller, seems to genuinely dislike the practice and will often challenge reps who claim to have created an opportunity with cold calling as the lead source.  Jon knows that very rarely do prospects get interested, run an evaluation, and choose a product or service because of an impromptu phone conversation they had with an unknown sales rep.  In reality, that cold call was probably perfectly timed with some marketing message (maybe even from a competitor) and was the final straw that got the opportunity off the ground.  Naturally there are exceptions to this, but those stories are for Happy Hour with your sales buddies.

So is cold calling really dead?  Not quite…but if you’re cold calling the same way you did 10-15 years ago, then you most certainly are wasting your time.  As with everything else, the way prospects buy has changed; therefore, we, as sales people, are changing the way we sell.

With a slowed economy and more information than ever available to prospects, it is critical that sales pros become as efficient and effective as possible.  This efficiency will most certainly not come from smiling and dialing for dollars.  What will be effective is doing your homework, finding prospects that are a good fit, and confidently pursuing them with messaging relevant to their business needs.  It may sound obvious, but the rifle approach of pursuing prospects demands a lot more heavy lifting before you pick up the phone.  So many sales organizations preach the shotgun approach while going for quantity instead of quality. 

Your prospects are most certainly evaluating all of the information they can find about your company and its competitors. So before you call anyone, arm yourself with research about your prospect before that first conversation.  If you’re not convinced they need your product or service, don’t pick up the phone. If you don’t buy into the message, it’s unlikely that they will either. You also need to have realistic expectations.  If your goal is to connect with a decision maker and have him or her listen to your blind sales pitch, you will be disappointed 99.99% of the time (these are known as the four 9s of sales). 

While sales and marketing alignment is critical at the executive level, it is just as important for sales reps to align their efforts with those of marketing.  For maximum efficacy, cold calling or warm calling efforts need to coincide with nurturing campaigns set up by marketing.  This is the scenario where cold calling can and will actually be effective.  By doing your homework, identifying companies that are a good fit, adding them to marketing’s nurturing tracks and then following up with a relevant value proposition, you put yourself in position to get your prospect’s attention.  This also will allow you to build trust with the prospect by taking the time to understand their business. Only then can you effectively communicate where your product or service will add value.

One thing that has not changed over the years is that every sale starts with a call.  The Internet, email and web conferencing have all changed the way we sell, so why do we still use the phone? A better question is why some companies continue to use the cold calling practices of the past. Cold calling is neither dead nor a waste of time, but it definitely is not what it used to be.