Cold calls are the bane of many salespeople, and they're harder now than ever before. Don't panic. You can make them work for you.

It's mid-afternoon and you're driving back to the office to catch up on paperwork after a friendly sales call on a long-time client. You crest a hill to find a sea of brakelights, road flares, and in the distance, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. There's one exit between you and the sea of standing traffic. With some quick merging maneuvers, you work your way over and take the exit, one you've driven past countless times. It leads into an old industrial district you scarcely knew existed. Among the small, battered brick and metal buildings, there's one or two with new signs and full employee parking lots.

You know from reading sales reports that these names are not in your company's database. One of the buildings obviously has undergone a recent expansion. You have a choice among several options. Do you go back to the office, file your reports and pretend this never happened? Do you make a note of the company name and address so you can pass it to an inside salesperson for follow-up? Or…?

You're a salesman, damn it. Get out of the car.

Cold calls are the most difficult part of the job for many, if not most, salespeople. There are cultural trends making it harder than ever before, and some in the business are beginning to question whether cold-calling is an effective use of your sales time. The nature of cold calls has certainly changed. But in the context of this change, many salespeople still find cold calls worth making. With the right perspective and preparation and some internal propulsion, you can add cold calls to the skills that help you survive and thrive as a salesperson.

Haunted by telemarketers

Wait. Before you get out of the car, take a moment to scan our society's changing attitudes toward uninvited sales calls. There's a new chill in the world of cold-call selling, and it blows out of your telephone. There can't be anyone in the wired world who hasn't been interrupted by a ringing telephone and some mumbling schmuck offering long-distance phone service or a free getaway vacation to some miserable lakefront tourist resort.

If you're so indiscrete as to mention that you have a fax machine in your home, you'll suddenly get page after page of wondrous, chance-of-a-lifetime travel offers and “secret” investment advice.

As if phone and fax assaults weren't enough, anyone seeking information online — including your prospective customer — now must surf through a Web infested with pop-up ads.

In a natural response to this deluge, many people have grown far more wary of unsolicited calls and have sought to put buffers between themselves and the bother. Private citizens in many states have turned to their attorneys general for protection through “no-call” lists. In the business world, you'll have to get past more filters to find the person with purchasing authority. As the vice president of sales for an industrial distributor told me recently, if the purchasing agents are quarterbacks, “the offensive lines are a lot bigger these days.”

The hostile attitude toward unsolicited calls has led some people to argue that cold calls have become a waste of time. Jeffery Gotimer, author of The Sales Bible, laid out his opinion loud and clear in an article last year in the American City Business Journals chain of weekly business news tabloids: “The cold call is the lowest percentage sales call It's an interruption. It's a fight. It's often a lie. It's maximum sales manipulation, and it's a rare appointment and a rarer sale,” he wrote.

He went on to say that cold calls are a great way to supplement existing sales, a great place to practice and a great way to learn sales skills, “but cold calls are a lousy place to make a sale.”

A foot in the door

Cold calls in the traditional sense of chasing smokestacks and blowing down doors in industrial parks may indeed be fading as a useful sales strategy. Yet from some perspectives, what's really happening is the nature of the cold call has changed.

Part of the reason is that many industrial plants have done away with receptionists. In the past, calling on a manufacturing plant almost always meant walking into a lobby and talking with a receptionist who could, possibly, be persuaded to help you get a few minutes of time with the purchasing manager. Today you'll often find nothing in the lobby but a telephone and a list: “dial ‘7’ for engineering, ‘9’ for purchasing, etc.” In that context, it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend the money and time to drive out there and make a cold call by phone from the lobby, because it's no different from calling from your office.

As a result of this change, a different kind of cold call has become much more important, says Frank Hurtte, vice president of Van Meter Industrial, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “What we have now are much more educated cold calls, where the guy goes in, and maybe he already calls on the maintenance department, and he says, ‘Would you mind if I just walk down the hall and talk with so-and-so in engineering?’

“Then he goes down there and says, ‘I already sell to your plant maintenance people, “Here's who I am, and here's what I can do.’ It's the same old cold-call rap, but now you have a good chance he may already know the name of your company, and you have a 100-percent chance that you already have his company's purchasing procedures down pat, and you know how they like things shipped. There's no waiting for credit approval or any of that. It gives you more credibility.”

Commune with the ancients

Even in that slightly friendlier context, cold calls test your skills and determination as a salesperson. They're also a link to a very colorful legacy. Cold calls put you in the shoes of the great salesmen of yesteryear. There was a time, and it was not so long ago, when most selling was done face-to-face. You may think of yourself as being profoundly different from the legendary Fuller Brush Man and the legion of door-to-door peddlers of aluminum siding, vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias. No doubt many salespeople's aversion to cold calling is rooted in a dread of being seen in that light.

Salespeople have worked for decades trying to distance themselves from that image (as they work today to distance themselves from the dreaded telemarketer), and there's no denying that selling has become a more professional and respected business.

There's something primal about a cold call. It's a gut-check thrill that's both humbling and empowering. If you can make yourself do this, you can accomplish anything.

Attitude can win games

To a large extent, cold call success comes down to a question of attitude. It also depends on how you define success. If you go into every cold call with all your hopes staked on making a sale, you're likely to get discouraged very quickly. When you walk up that sidewalk, your sole goal should be to open a door.

The object of the game is to get your face in front of a stranger, introduce yourself and your company, find out as much about his or her company as you can and look for clues to the best reasons the customer might need your services. You must be ready to follow through and make a sale if the opportunity arises, of course, but the odds are slim. First contact and first-hand information are the real goals.

To get things moving, draw on your own competitive nature by turning it into a game. The object of the game is to get as high a score on each call as you can. Devise your own point system. You might assign five points for getting out of the car and walking in the door. A couple of points for finding out the name of the purchasing agent. Five points if you don't get past the receptionist, but leave your business card and some leave-behind materials about your company. Twenty points if you get past the receptionist and meet with a live person, another 30 points if it's the person with primary purchasing authority.

Give yourself 50 points if you get key qualifying information about the company — what they make, how long they've been in business, who they buy their electrical products from now and so forth — whether you get to see anybody or not. If you get to make your pitch and get an appointment for a follow-up meeting to talk about your products in more depth, give yourself 30 points. If you actually make a sale on the spot, you get 500 points and the game ball.

When you get back to the car, evaluate your performance. If there are certain areas of the call where you tend to be weak, assign an extra bonus point to that phase of the call to boost your motivation next time.

Cold calls really are a numbers game, after all. Most of the calls you go on will yield you little more than contact information for later follow-ups, but if you keep trying to score as high as possible, eventually you'll hit somebody at the right time and walk into an entirely unexpected piece of new business.

Know what you're going to say

The gift of gab comes in handy, but preparation sells. Know your company's products and services thoroughly, determine what differentiates your company from the other distributors and be able to get that information across quickly and clearly.

The best way to do this is to have a sales pitch prepared ahead of time that covers the most important points about your company. Write it out and practice it until you can deliver it smoothly and casually, and constantly refine it. Quick and light-hearted is best.

You should also write down the most likely objections you'll run into, and add to this list any new ones you may encounter during a call. Think through the best ways to counter those objections ahead of time, addressing the customer's concerns sincerely and politely, then redirecting his thoughts to the advantages your company offers.

The other part of preparation is to have some literature to leave behind with the customer so he'll have something to refer to if he should need to contact you later. At the very least this should be a business card and line card, but you should also have a brochure or flyer that introduces the company and describes the benefits of its products and services in general terms.

If you don't have a pitch down pat and can't come up with one on the spot, or if you don't have any leave-behind materials, maybe you are better off jotting down the company name and address and retreating to your office. But take this as a learning experience, and when you get back to base, take the time to write out, memorize and rehearse a smooth introduction that will get your point across quickly without setting off any alarm bells. If you don't have leave-behind materials, restock your briefcase and put some extras in your trunk so you won't be caught empty-handed again.

Practice is the best way to overcome your cold-call concerns. It's easy to forget how to do it well, so make yourself do it now and then, even when you're not looking for new accounts, just to stay fresh. Each time you get out of the car, even if you end up getting blown out of the lobby, you reinforce your personal commitment to hitting the pavement and getting your company's name into every nook and cranny where it might do somebody some good. You also make it easier to get out of the car next time.