The cold call. To many, the very phrase has that unsettling sound of nails down a chalkboard, invoking imagery of a task involving countless wasted hours and days on a phone calling potential contacts or customers who ultimately don’t want to be bothered. To these skeptics, the cold call is an intimidating function, simultaneously tedious, repetitious and exhausting.
Yet, the reality can be—and, for executives who have mastered it, is–very different. In our digital age, there are an unprecedented number of ways to reach customers. But there is still no substitution for the combination of personal interaction and volume of possible interactions that can be accomplished through cold calls.
And this is a fact that has been demonstrated objectively and statistically. In June 2010, the Direct Marketing Association issued its “Response Rate Report Trend,” which found that cold calling yielded a 6.16 percent response rate, outperforming other sales and marketing solicitations, including direct mail, email, paid search and Internet surveys. Our members’ feedbacks confirm it. This is why we have recently added on our 50,000+ company org charts their switchboard phone numbers.
For these reasons, the cold call remains a function that should be mastered, not shunned, by anyone with an inside sales functional responsibility. But now the hard part: Mastering the cold starts with mastering the most intimidating part of the cold call process: Navigating a company’s gatekeeper, otherwise known as the switchboard operator.
The history of the switchboard operator has evolved considerably over the years. At first, the switchboard operator function was designed innocently to ensure calls were properly routed. Over time, as companies (perhaps wrongly) concluded that too many calls were unwanted or consuming too much time of management personnel, companies moved to either fully automated phone systems (without an operator) or to a new breed of switchboard operator who views his or her role as disposing of calls, not routing them. The goal, in essence, was to end the cold call.
Where does this leave sales personnel, executive recruiters and other professional service personnel who still rely on the cold call and need to navigate this system and reach their appropriate contacts? Answer: It leaves them with a need to grasp and execute on the following best practices that will allow them the best prospects for success in navigating through switchboard operators successfully:
1. When you have name of contact: If you are fortunate enough to have the name of the person you need to reach but not a direct number, the approach is simple (yet still important): Ask for them directly and relatively informally with little or no additional commentary or explanation. But always ask to speak with your point of contact.
Never phrase your inquiry as a question, such as: “Is Mr. Jones available?” This makes turns what is a request into a question and only allows the operator to ponder the availability or to find a reason why he or she may not be available. If you then reach an executive’s assistant, keep the request a bit informal, using the first name of the executive. For instance, “Is Dave there?”
Many (and maybe most) times the name of the point of contact for a cold call is not available by pre-developed research or acquired lists. This would never happen if you are one of our members ;). In these cases, the following approaches have been shown to strongly improve the prospects for success:
2. Friendly and upbeat: An operator will typically make a judgment about the person on the other end of the line within the first 30 seconds of a call, concluding that the person is well-intentioned or not. Calls that sound uninspired or repetitious will not likely be successful. Make the call sound like it is the one and only call you are making that day and that you are generally happy to speak to the person on the other line.
3. Keep it brief: Like everyone in business these days, operators are busy. Calls come fast and must be disposed of just as quickly. And like everyone else, an operator is a human being who likely has his or her own frustrations and challenges that likely are at the forefront of their mind even as they work. What they don’t need as any extensive, drawn out conversation. Politely explain your objective and kindly ask to be connected to the appropriate person. When (if likely) you are asked who is calling, answer the question confidently and succinctly with your full name and corporate affiliation.
4. Be kind: It may seem self-evident, but it needs to be said: A switchboard operator, many of whom take in excess of a hundred calls a day, deals with plenty of coldness and rudeness and is more inclined to be responsive to a kind-sounding call than one that sounds robotic or rude. Executives also appreciate knowing that their support staff are treated kindly and respectively.
5. Be humble, respectful and briefly conversational: Questions like “I bet you can help me?” and the like convey a degree of respect for the switchboard operator’s capabilities and are likely to be well-received. Also remember that the switchboard operator deserves respect and is not a robot. A conversational-like approach, as long as it does not consume too much of the operator’s time, is more likely to be successful. Don’t hesitate to ask briefly how their day is going.
6. Aim high: The reality is that, even in large organizations, decision-making (the ability to acquire a product or service) is fairly constrained to top executives. But top executives are typically just as willing to hear a cold pitch as middle-level managers, who (not being empowered to authorize a response anyway) are even more inclined to quickly dispense of a cold call.
7. Be honest and authentic: Statements like “this may or may not be of interest,” or “I’m not sure this exactly right for your company” might sound as if you are negatively pre-judging your own offering, but such humble statements make the call more authentic and thus more likely to be handled seriously.
8. When all else fails: Many cold calls will fail, and that’s ok. They are always worth retrying. When you do, it’s worth remembering that the switchboard operator almost certainly does not work one, uninterrupted shift. They likely take a lunch break, which means someone else likely sits in for them when they do.
If you are having repeated trouble getting through one switchboard operator, try again during lunch (usually noon to 1pm) and see if you might find a more accommodating voice on the other end of the line. The same is usually true with calls placed earlier in the morning (before, say, 8am) or later in the afternoon (after 5pm).