Cold-calling: a competitive edge for SMEs

Cold-calling: a competitive edge for SMEs

January 28, 2008 by Andy Coughlin

Things are stacked against smaller enterprises in so many ways when it comes to winning business. Getting that all-important first customer, having the financial muscle to fulfil sizeable orders and being 'allowed' to bid are all factors that SMEs face or have faced.  

It's crucial to focus on the areas of strength within a business. There are many and maybe we can discuss others in future posts. But for today, I wanted to raise the question of cold-calling: often a necessary evil. I'm lucky because my calls get screened by colleagues, but occasionally a salesperson gets through and I sometimes accept that the caller is simply doing their job, so I take the call and listen. 'Listen' being the operative word, because invariably these callers talk at me with little consideration for me the person on the other end of the line.

They tend to all make the same mistakes. My name is on a list of thousands, and the caller is just working down the list. Twenty seconds earlier they did not know I existed, and now they are trying to sell me corporate hospitality at Wimbledon.  They don't know what we do as a business. And they don't have the most basic grasp of whether I have any requirements or even whether I can spare a couple of minutes to hear what they have to say.  And when a stranger asks 'How are you?', you know it is a tele-sales person.

How can this help a small business? Of course, some SMEs need to do cold-calling. But they are probably not doing it in call-centres. And they are probably not selling hotel rooms today and IT solutions tomorrow. So they should know their products inside out. They should also have some personal experience of how people use, or benefit from their products. And in small teams, perhaps even with the owner/manager or MD sitting with them, can prepare their calls, discuss and agree the sort of questions that should determine whether the prospect might be interested.  Some call centres work on a numbers game. Bash the calls out and the sales will come in eventually.  But SMEs can offer something in the way they sell that mirrors what they hope to deliver - a more personal service.


Frank Sheedy's picture

Not Utopia. Lincoinshire.

You wanta know how I make sales Tom? I'll tell you, you dont need to be phyiscally visible to your customers.

There are plenty ways to attract customers, without resorting to cold calling. Ever heard of "good ol' fashioned" word-of-mouth and customer recommendation? Always worked for me. If your good at what you do, word always gets round dont it?

Failing that, theres plenty other ways to get your name out there, local advertising - print, radiom flyers, even the old interweb can be useful, through websites and blogs. I've even looked into one myself.

Thing is Tom, SMEs can research and target the punters they want without resorting to tactics like cold-calling. You have said yourself that when cold-callers ring you, you reckon you "politely say “Thank you for taking the time to call me to enquire as to my health however I am not interested” - I use more coarse words I gotta tell you, but really whats the point? Why encourage others to cold-call when you yourself admit the majority of the time its a useless pratice? I wonder how often you yourself make a sale from cold calling?

At the end of the day, it seems a pointless waste of space to spend time cold-calling when 99% of the people you ring are going to say no, it seems a even bigger waste when you think that those customers might have bought from you, but are turned off because you have rang them right in the middle of Eastenders to beg for business.

At the end of the day, it aint utopia, just good ol fashioned business sense lad.

Mick Dickinson's picture

Couldn't agree more, Tom. My 'moment of revelation' regarding the ethical nature of sales came during a training session with Ian Cochrane of Gazing Performance, when I finally realised "It's OK to be a salesman. In fact, it's great". Think I better write a post on that.

tom sloan's picture

Wow Frank - you must be based in Utopia!

We're a 3 year old start up. Our offices are on the 3rd floor and we have no shopfront - not unreasonable as we're a business-to-business company. Do we just stand outside and wait for people to bump into us so we can make sales, win their business and then provide good "old fashioned" person-to-person customer service to keep 'em coming back?

It would be great to get an invite to Utopia and learn how you accomplish this.

I must say that at the moment I wholeheartedly embrace cold calling as well as Direct Mail (physical yes, email no!). I absolutely encourage other SMEs to thoroughly research their potential markets, focus their advertising and sales promotions to their target audience and genuinely understand what benefits or "reductions in pain" they can bring to their prospective audience before even picking up the 'phone .

I too, get numerous cold calls from "telemarketing" companies that have no idea what my company does, what we currently use or why we would want their product or service(s). I politely (usually) say "Thank you for taking the time to call me to enquire as to my health however I am not interested". BUT, the best thing of all is that I am able to learn from them regarding "what not to do" and I share the real life examples (aka sales training) with my sales colleagues.

In the late '80s/early '90s I asked a salesman that I admired about his "self image" as a salesman. His response was (alomost verbatim):

"Tom, my job is to help those people that have already decided to buy something (or are perhaps thinking about buying something), make the right decision. If my product is the best solution then I feel very happy having accomplished my goal. However my product isn't always going to be the best solution for every prospect and that's fine so I don't expect to get a sale. Sometimes, there are people who have a latent desire and if I carefully target those people/companies I might be the first to the party so I will often make cold calls too. Sales is a great job for professionals but cowboys get it a bad name".

As you can see very profound!

andycoughlin's picture

Fair points, Frank. I suppose it all depends on what we mean by 'cold-calling'. Taking a random list of companies and trying to sell 'executive travel' to them, is hopeless, I completely agree. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, the dream scenario of selling to people who other customers have recommended you to is not always possible. All I mean is that if you are going to sell new business (or even set up the calls to facilitate those sales) then at least do your homework. Ask a few questions and relate the potential benefits of what you have to the company you are talking to.

Frank Sheedy's picture

All cold callers should be banned. All I ever get when running my business is people phoning me up offering me all sorts of products and services that I dont want or have never shown any interest in. I even requested a private number and ask sales people to not ring and take me off there list. Yet the calls still come.

As a small business owner I'd advise other SMEs to forget cold calling and embrace good "old fashioned" person-to-person customer service. Thats how you win customers, thats how you make sales, thats how you keep them coming back.

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