Growing Your Business with Marketing, Week 3: Cold Calls! Or, “You’re only a stranger once”

This is Week Three of a 52-week project/experiment in DIY marketing. Armed with nothing but a copy of the 2009 Grow Your Business Marketing Plan + Calendar and my bare wits, I'm applying the skills you need to grow a business in real time, day by day, and reporting on them week by week. You can follow along here every Monday; check in with my companion blog, A Virgo's Guide to Marketing, for additional links and information.

This week: Making cold calls without it killing you

The good news is, I'm still here.

Laugh away, all you brilliant salespeople who pick up the phone over and over (with or without "the good leads") and sober-dial strangers for 15 or 30 or 60 minutes per day. Until last Friday, I had never made a cold call in my life.

Truthfully, I still haven't. Ilise and Peleg have very wisely repositioned the dreaded cold call as the slightly less dreadful "research call"—a small but significant shift, mentally. My one non-retail sales job—selling desk blotter ad space one summer between my junior and senior years—had me knocking on actual doors to sell, something that one either has the stones for or that teaches one to find other employment. Much like my brief experience in the food service industry, I chose the the latter.

But I digress. We're here to discuss cold/research calling…

Making practice calls makes (theoretically) perfect calls

Both the Grow Your Business Calendar and Ilise very specifically state that one should make a few (hundred, if necessary) practice calls on prospects who are not on your "A" list.

For me, selling my little marketing-for-actors talk, that means finding schools outside of easy driving radius of my home who have some kind of acting program where they're getting training in the artsy/tech-y sides of things, but not the business side. There are dozens and dozens of places less than a half-day from where I live, if not closer; ultimately, I'd like to develop some kind of ongoing relationship with them, where I come a couple of times per term or even get an adjunct professorship. (I very much like the sound of "Professor Wainwright", although there's no way I would let anyone call me that on purpose.)

So I needed to find acting schools outside of a 50-mile radius. Preferably, way outside.

Where to find practice "marks"

While I was whining to Ilise during our weekly check-in about who the HELL was I going to call and how the HELL was I going to find them, she went online, did a quick Google search and fired off an email to me with a URL. I believe the very complex search parameters she plugged in were "acting" and "schools". Without the quotes.

Several of the schools I recognized as so-called "schools"—non-accredited institutions designed to separate desperate would-be stars from their money; live long enough in L.A. and work long enough in the industry and you learn who the bad guys are. I didn't care about them, but I didn't want to call them, either: I want people at real schools with real acting programs, just farther away.

One school looked like a likely non-immediate prospect: branch of a large, state uni, stand-alone acting program, roughly 1,500 miles away. After a bit more searching using the the school's name and a couple of other terms like "professor" and "chair", I hit the jackpot: a downloadable PDF from the past academic year with the names and contact info of every chair of what looked like every college in the state! I went from having zero practice prospects to enough to practice on for the next four weeks in a few keystrokes.

Eventually, you have to pick up the phone and dial

While Ilise gave me permission to call after hours and just leave messages, I figured since I was doing it out loud here on the blog I ought to at least try talking to some real people. Granted, I wasn't sure who'd be answering the phone in a theater department on a Friday at 3:45 (this state is two times zones east of here), but at least I made a stab at calling during working hours.

My very first call, someone picked up. (Of course.) She sounded sweet and friendly and very, very young, so she was a good first gatekeeper. I went off-script and chatted about the weather and how lucky we were to be in states where it was good during the winter, then plunged into my script. Sort of.

What I mean is that I definitely used the script to keep me on track—to remember to say my name clearly and slowly, and for a quick way of summing up what it was I was calling about—but with a real human on the line, I felt the need to connect and let things flow. I added some things here and there instinctively, talking about my background in commercial acting and marketing, or adding a bit of embellishment or emphasis about how important it was to learn real-world skills, or just…being human. I mean, we've all been on the receiving end of those dreadful telemarketing calls (which is probably why everyone hates cold calling, aside from the potential for rejection); I did not want to be That Person.

She heard my pitch, put me on hold while she checked with her boss, and then came back and asked me to email him some links. Which means, of course, I'll now have to add a new landing page to my site specifically for this. No matter.

It was a great way to kick off the cold calling fest. It was also the only live human I got; everything else went straight into voicemail, so I had a chance to see how I was with that, as well. (Oddly enough, it was harder. It was easier with the give-and-take of a live human on the other end. Go figger.)

My best advice to those of you heading into your cold calls

I can tell that this is probably never going to be my fave thing; I'm a writer and a performer, not a salesperson. Plus, I hate the phone. But just doing it this once, a few things are a lot clearer, and I think next time will be easier.

  • Don't skip the steps before this. Really. One thing I felt supported in was that I knew with absolute certainty what I had to sell and the kind of people I needed to get in front of. Calling is already a pretty random way of doing things; make sure you can make concrete what's in your control to do so.
  • Work off of a printed form. I now have a list with notes I can use for followup, which is critical. You will NOT remember later, especially if you're nervous during. But more importantly, I got to check off each name. Never underestimate the power of a really silly motivator.
  • Smile. Breathe. I don't remember if I learned the first from voiceover actors or some marketing book, but it makes a difference. You feel better if you smile, and I swear, it warms up your voice so the other person can hear it. The breathing thing is something I'm constantly having to remind myself of. I think I may put a big sticky note on my monitor next time.
  • Write it down in your calendar. If you're like me, the calendar is sacred territory. If it makes it onto the calendar, I keep the appointment. If it's just an item on a list…well, that can be pushed to another day. A silly hack, maybe, but it helps.

Next week: More calls! And more (hopefully) illuminating stuff around making calls! And maybe even some feedback on and learning from previous calls!