Is cold calling dead?

By Mark Burden

I see ads all over the internet announcing that cold calling has met its demise. They blame changes in how communication takes place (email, texting, and social media) as being the culprit – a sort of, Col. Mustard in the Ballroom with the Lead Pipe. They talk about how certain executives have no land line on their desks, and how people are shifting away from even having a “home” phone. However, citing a 2015 Deloitte study, Time.com1 claims Americans are checking their phones a collective 8 billion times a day.

So what is the truth…?

Whether it sounds old school or not, people are still using their phones. Yes, there is a lot of texting and other “smart” uses of cell phones going on, but the bottom line is that most people have one, and they’re checking it constantly. So why do people want to see the end of cold calling? Is it because people are drawn to what is new? Is it out of a desire to embrace technology? Is it because of the fear that creates call reluctance? Is it a lack of cold calling success?

It is likely a combination of these factors, but the truth is that people can be readily accessed on their phones; perhaps more than ever before. Gone are the days of leaving voice messages for people who are “out of the office”, because those same people will have their cell phone with them and can be reached in the car (on hands-free, please), or coming out of a meeting, or even in another part of the building. I find myself doing this a lot – I know someone is in, but not at their desk, so I call their cell.

In fact many people never check their voice mail at all. I have sales reps that don’t. When asked why, they reply, “I can see that you called. Why would I check a message when you can tell me yourself when I call you back?” Good point.

…you can’t handle the truth.

There are two big bugaboos around the cold call. One is call reluctance (read, “fear”) and the other is The Gate Keeper (cue the scary music). People in the general sales population want cold calling to be dead. No one likes doing it, and most people aren’t particularly good at it. So they go looking for referrals, they “network” – whatever that means – they push the marketing department to step up their ad campaigns; all so that they don’t have to pick up the phone a call someone new.

Fear and The Gate Keeper can really be rolled into one thing: fear OF The Gate Keeper. This is really where many budding sales careers are derailed. Sometimes it takes only one gifted gate keeper to turn a promising young star into an accountant or an operations administrator. Tragic, really. I’m not at risk of offending accountants or ops administrators here because they stopped reading at the title.

But if people have phones and use them regularly, why can’t we still use them to make contact? Well we can, and here’s how.

You must have a script and you must have a plan

Scripts are funny things. They are critical for cold calling success, but most sales reps resist having to use them. I have always worked with scripts, both in my own cold calling and in training sales people. A good script can make all the difference between success and failure on the call. If properly memorized it does several things:

– it ensures that the rep says the right things in the right way,
– it allows you to plan your responses to objections,
– it takes the focus off of what you’re going to say (you’ve memorized it) so you can listen to what they’re saying,
– it gives focus and direction to the call, and above all,
– it removes 90% of the fear of making the call in the first place.

Many sales people are averse to the script. They don’t think scripts sound natural, they feel the need to customize each call to the uniqueness of the prospect, they like to free-wheel (“…you don’t understand, a script cramps my style.”). But without one, you’ll be reduced to the status of average – or worse.

Having said this, you can’t write the script properly until you have a plan. Call plans come in two flavours, tactical and strategic. Most tactical plans involve becoming a calling machine. I did this for years. In fact, I made over 30,000 phone calls this way. I got very, very good at it… and then I burned myself out. You can only call like a maniac for so long. Then it takes its toll on you.

The other approach is to attack it strategically. What does this mean? It means understanding the dynamics of a complex sale, and knowing how the gatekeeper function actually works. Here comes another plug, so beware – and I don’t get one thin dime for this, honest – when it comes to learning how to get past the gatekeeper, I have found nothing better than SOAR Selling by David and Marhnelle Hibbard. The work they have done in explaining the role and wiring of the gatekeeper and plotting a strategy around him/her is incredible. This strategy can completely transform not only your approach to cold calling, but more importantly your results.

A wise man once told me, “if you want to be successful in an area, find someone who is successful at it and do what they do.” The Hibbards have had massive success cold calling this way and teaching others to do it. It works, and in all my years of training sales people I haven’t found anything that approaches SOAR Selling. You can be the best presenter and closer in the world, but it all starts with getting in front of the right people in the first place.

Death of an Excuse

The bottom line is that as long as people have phones, cold calling will be a thing. As long as people have some kind of device for talking to each other across distances, there will be a place for the cold call. Approaches might change, strategies might morph, but let’s not fall for the excuse that cold calling is dead.

Lack of results in sales has fueled a regular cottage industry of excuse making. If sales people would spend as much time learning, practicing and becoming an expert at cold calling as they do on developing the excuses, we’d see a lot more President’s Club and Million Dollar Circle winners. Looking for ways of not doing what is required has been the downfall of many a rep.

In a sales training event many years ago, the speaker spent two solid hours explaining the very best approaches and techniques for cold calling – the very things he had personally done to achieve massive success. At the end of it all, some clown in the back row raised his hand and said, “Couldn’t we just drop off flyers in the neighbourhood?” You get the idea. If someone doesn’t want to cold call, he/she just won’t do it – period. If they don’t want to, then fine. But let’s not say it’s dead. Cold calling is alive and well. Become an expert at it, and you will transform your sales career.


Mark Burden is a Certified Behavioural Analyst and career sales leader currently working as Sales Manager, Canada Direct Sales at UniFirst Canada Ltd. in Oakville, ON. Mark has a diverse background working in business consulting, advertising sales, lighting and uniform supply.