When speaking to a successful agency business development VP the other day I asked him, ‘Why are cold calls so easy for you?’ Without missing a beat he responded, ‘Because I enjoy helping people.’ He explained that when calling into organizations in industries where his firm had experience he felt confident of his ability to help, therefore he found the calls easy to make and the prospectsreceptive to his confidence and enthusiasm. It was the calls to firms that he was unsure he could help that he found difficult to make.
It is amazing the confidence and power that comes from the knowledge that you can help. In my agency business development career I sweated and labored over the difficult calls like everyone else, but when I was certain our firm could help I had no problem picking up the phone and calling the largest companies in the world. After leaving unanswered messages for one VP in an industry that our firm had considerable experience, I called his boss, the president, and said, ‘I’m trying to reach your vice-president of marketing but he won’t return my calls.’ Fifteen minutes later the VP called, apologizing profusely, and at 8:00 the next morning I was meeting with both of them. That was a swinging-for-the-fences approach that was either going to net immediate results or ensure that I never did business with any company that VP was now or would ever be associated with. Sure, I got lucky. But the power to call the president was not rooted in an audacious arrogance or an abnormal fearlessness. It was my adamant belief that we could truly help this company. I was convinced that the VP of marketing was negligent in not talking to me.
If only all telephone stories had such an ending. In truth, marketing communication agencies – like most other professional services firms – see the cold-call as the bastard step-child of sales and marketing. Many agencies spend countless hours and dollars trying to come up with largely-futile creative alternatives to picking up the phone.
The Hierarchy of Business Development Activities
I recently finished reading two books, one by a management consultant and one by an advertising and marketing consultant, that disparaged cold-calling as something only desperate organizations need resort to. Both authors are successful solo practitioners who have been effective and even lucky, I think they would admit, in building their businesses without having to pick up the telephone. But neither has been in a position where they wake up one day to realize that 5 or 50 or even 500 employees walk in their doors everyday and today there is nothing for them to do. The people who are terrified of those calls, and who have never had to make them, will tell you how horrible they are. Those who have had to make enough of them will tell you that, done properly, telephone introductions can be easy to make and highly effective.
There is a hierarchy of business development or lead generation activities. At the top are items such as publish a book, publish an article, deliver a speech, and get quoted – all of the activities that serve to position you as an expert in your field and cause prospects to seek you out. At the bottom is the cold-call. While all agency principals would like to get to the wonderful place the two author-consultants enjoy, where people are seeking them out, most must build their business, at least at some point, by seeking out prospects. If people are not calling you, the most immediate, effective thing you can do to build new business momentum is to pick up the phone and introduce your firm to people who have never heard of you. No other business development activity beats the immediacy of dialing.
The Ultimate Key Performance Indicator
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are the signs of business success. Lagging, or historical, indicators show how successful you have been in the past. Financial figures are the ultimate example: you know you were successful because the numbers tell you that you were. Leading indicators are the signs that you will be successful in the future. They are predictors of business aspirations realized. In the world of agency business development there are many leading indicators but none so simple and revealing as outbound calls. Without having any other information about an agency – its size, location, specialization, or even historical success – one can make a general but reliable prediction of future success based on how many times a day the business development person’s phone dials out. The more the firm dials, the greater the odds of future success.
The reasons for this are not as simple as it being a ‘numbers game’. Dialing drives improvement across a number of different business development performance areas. The dialer will learn fairly quickly if the words used to describe the firm’s value proposition are not resonating with prospects, over time (dials) he will find ways to improve his business development process, and with practice he will improve his skills. The more he dials, the more the positioning is improved or reaffirmed, the sharper the process becomes, the better the person gets. Dialing drives improvement like nothing else.
Embrace and Win
Well positioned, well managed agencies some day grow beyond the need to rely on telephone introductions to actively build the company and take control of an ever-improving client base. However, very few of the roughly 25,000 marketing communication agencies in America reside at this wonderful place. The vast majority need to pick up the telephone, and many dread it. Even the firms that attain this lofty goal continue to dial out. Their calls are warm calls – nurturing calls to previously introduced prospects. In sales, in business, there is no hiding from the telephone. Those who embrace the telephone win. Those who do not are far more likely to lose.
The Anatomy of a Telephone Introduction
My agency VP friend lamented about the negativity around the term cold-calling. ”It should be renamed for what it is: telephone introductions.’ Cold-calling conjures up ideas of trying to convince someone of something cold – in the first interaction. The purpose of your telephone introduction is not to convince, but to introduce your firm as succinctly as you can: two or three sentences that claim an expertise and describe how you help firms like theirs, followed by a few questions about their needs.
Imagine the Wal-Mart greeter. He’s not convincing anybody to buy anything, he’s saying, ‘Hello. Can I help you,’ over and over again. Telephone introductions are as simple as identifying those that you can best help, introducing yourself on the phone by describing your firm’s expertise in one sentence, explaining how you help firms like theirs in a second sentence, and asking if you can help in a third. If the answer is no, then it’s no. For now. Only a fool (or a full-commission sales person) would attempt to change someone’s mind in that first phone call. Your goal is merely to launch the very beginning of your relationship. Hearing no is the first step toward yes.