In his landmark book “Managing the Professional Services Firm”, leading professional services guru David Maister labels cold calling for sales as a third-tier “desperation” measure.
Can Maister be wrong? Certainly the vast majority of professionals intensely dislike cold calling and are more than eager to accept the many pronouncements that “cold calling doesn’t work”.
But the reality is that many professional service firms and sole practitioners have used cold calling very successfully to grow their practices.
For example, the firm where I began my career, Gemini Consulting (and its predecessor United Research) fuelled its phenomenal growth in the 90s primarily through cold calling. It used a dedicated “Strategic Executive Relationship Building” team to place calls with senior executives to get meetings for Gemini’s business developers – and it worked exceptionally well.
So the question should not be “does cold calling work?” – but instead “when does it work?” and “how do you make it work?”.
When Does Cold Calling Work Best?
Cold calling in professional services is almost always geared towards getting a meeting with a prospective client. And it will always be, to some degree, a numbers game. While it makes sense to make the call as warm as possible, and to try to target calls to people most likely to be responsive to what you have to sell; there will always be a huge element of the unknown. Most importantly, the key variable is whether the person you call will have a need for your services. And the more pressing the need, the more likely you will be to get a meeting.
That means that cold calling will be more suitable for some services than others. If your service is one that target companies are likely to need most of the time, or if the time that they need to use it is “visible” from the outside – then cold calling is much more likely to be a valuable tactic than if not.
For example, if your expertise is in helping companies to reduce the cost of their external purchases then most companies will have an ongoing need for your services – unless they have just completed a similar program. In contrast, if your expertise is in helping companies identify acquisition targets – that is a service that fewer companies need, and those that do only need it relatively infrequently.
Cold calling for sales for the first service is much more likely to result in a receptive audience than the second. In fact, the chances of reaching a potential client with a pressing need for your services (without the benefit of insider information to guide your targeting) is so unlikely in the second case that it would normally render cold calling economically unviable (although in this case, for high value potential clients, it could be the initial step in an ongoing “nurture marketing” campaign to get front-of-mind with the target client when they do come to need the service).
Another example of a service suitable for cold calling is where the “trigger event”* which drives the need for the service is externally visible. For example, if your service is post-merger integration, or advising companies on recent legislation changes – these events are usually visible to the service provider from outside the prospect – and so can be used to guide the timing and targeting of a successful cold calling campaign.
In the case of Gemini Consulting, the service offer was “solving a ‘red issue’ via business transformation”. The ‘red issue’ was the business problem that kept the executive awake at night and business transformation was a holistic twist on the prevailing hot topic of re-engineering that most companies in the 90s were interested in. The Executive Relationship team did enough homework and were business-savvy enough to be able to identify a number of potential topics that the executive might be worried about – and to engage them in a brief discussion about those topics.
Essentially they did enough to pique the executives interest to secure a meeting with a partner/business developer who was then able to question the client face-to-face to identify what their ‘red issue’ really was – and to position the firm as being able to address it. So the service being sold was general enough that – as long as an issue or big problem could be found – a meeting could be secured.
Alternative Approaches to Cold Calling
Another key determinant in “When Does Cold Calling Work Best?” is the effectiveness of alternative marketing and sales tactics.
Referrals and networking can often be a more effective method than cold calling in identifying a warm prospect and gaining the credibility to secure a face to face meeting. But for many firms and especially sole practitioners who are essentially in start-up mode with no established customers or referral network, they are often not a viable option.
Similarly, public speaking and article writing are two highly effective marketing techniques for professional services – but both have long lead times; and are not a viable option for those who don’t have the skill or experience in speaking and writing to make them work.
So sometimes, cold calling is the only viable option to gain short-term sales.
How Do You Make Cold Calling Work?
With professional services, the target client often does not fully understand the depth of their issues and challenges. And because of the intangible nature of professional services; they find it difficult to properly evaluate and establish your credibility as a supplier. So when selling professional services it’s vital to enter into a dialogue to explore the client’s problem to help them discover its true impact and causes. And it’s vital to demonstrate your value, credibility and trustworthiness to the client during the selling process – otherwise they will not build up the confidence to allow you to “take care of their baby”.
Unfortunately, cold calling for sales itself does not inherently help with these factors. Simply calling up to ask for a meeting does nothing to identify the clients problems and their impact – and does not demonstrate value, credibility or trustworthiness to the client.
The cold-calling approaches which work best for professional services are the ones which do allow these two factors to be addressed.
So an effective cold call will be one which:
Delivers value to the client in the call itself – or more likely offers immediate value from the meeting to be arranged (for example, discussion of a relevant research study, case examples from similar clients, or details of upcoming legislation changes affecting the client)
Allows an exploratory dialogue about the client’s business challenges to take place which both qualifies the client (allowing them to “hold their hand up” to express interest) and allows the professional to role-model what it will be like to work with them in future: insightful questions, good interpersonal skills, modesty, candor, etc.
Gives the client confidence that the professional can be trusted – for example through subtle third-party referencing or simply the way the professional handles themselves throughout the call
For these reasons, it is usually more effective in the professional makes the cold call themselves. A highly skillful telesales person – as in the case of the Gemini Executive Relationship Building team – will be able to position the value and qualify the client – but an interaction with them will not help inform the client what it will be like working with the professional as much as talking to the professional themselves will.
Of course, if the professional has a poor telephone manner, or a real phobia of cold calling; then they won’t do a good job of this either – and so it would be best to leave it to a third party. And sometimes the skills of a third party – who is used to cold calling for a living – can outweigh the specific knowledge and capabilities of the professional themselves. But even then, they need to be not only skillful at cold calling, but also knowledgeable about the firm, its clients, and its services – and able to leave “the right impression”.
Warming Up the Call
In addition to the way the call itself is handled, the more that can be done beforehand to make the call “warm” the better. This could include:
Using your existing client and contact base to at least make a connection to the target client
Researching the client and their company beforehand to identify potential business issues that might be of interest
Sending relevant thought leadership material in advance to establish credibility – and maybe even getting them to call you
Calling other people in the company as “entry points” to get their opinions (for example to confirm or reshape initial hypotheses about the client’s top business issues) and get a referral to the client themselves
Working positively with the client’s gatekeeper to ensure a “positive mention” when the call is set up
The Importance of Attitude
Another key factor in making a cold call a success is the attitude with which it is made. Professionals sell mainly to senior executives – but senior executives hate to be “sold to”. A professional who makes a call with the need to sell uppermost in his or her mind is likely to trigger defensiveness in the client. Paradoxically, a professional is much more likely to make a sale if they make the call with an objective of finding out if a client really needs their services, and if so of beginning to form a productive business relationship.
Cold Calling for Sales in Professional Services Works
In summary: cold calling may not be suitable for every professional service firm – but let’s be clear: for the right firms, at the right time, and done in the right way; it can be a huge driver of profitable growth.