E-mails, texts, faxes, tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn messages and even a handwritten letter sent via snail mail -- there may be a million ways to contact a potential customer, client, investor or vendor these days, but sometimes you just have to pick up the phone and make a call. Sometimes it's the most direct route to getting the response that you want and need. Plus, as Wendy Weiss, author of Cold Calling for Women: Opening Doors & Closing Sales, says, "The truth is that it's the perfect tool for today's economy. It's direct, proactive and inexpensive. And it works."
Ready to make that first cold call? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Get to the point. Yes, there's something to be said for being friendly and offering some small talk first, but if the people you're calling are swamped, that may be the last thing they want. They may have picked up the phone out of obligation or habit or because they didn't want the call to go to voicemail and have a bunch of digital messages stacking up. Whatever their reasoning, chances are good that the person you're calling didn't pick up the phone thinking, "I hope I can engage in some small talk with a complete stranger." Michael Zugsmith, chairman of Nai Capital, a commercial real estate brokerage, says the subject of cold calling comes up a lot in his company's offices. "We often discuss a '30-second elevator pitch,'" he says. "What would you say if you were in an elevator with a potential client and you only had 30 seconds in which to market your services? On the telephone, there might be an even shorter period of time."
2. Respect the clock. If you think about it, when you make a phone call, you're in control in a way that the other person is not. You've finished other parts of your work. You've had lunch. You've checked your e-mail. Whatever you've been up to, you're calling at a point when it's convenient for you to have a discussion on the phone. But the person on the other end might be in the middle of a million things -- talking to colleagues, answering an important e-mail, poring over papers. Granted, it may lead to a good way to a "not interested, goodbye," but you'll likely earn the respect and appreciation of the other person if you initially ask, "Did I call at a good time? I can call back if you'd like."
3. Be a problem solver. Because time flies -- it's a short distance between the greeting and the decision that this call is a waste of time -- Zugsmith recommends getting your "differentiator" out there right away. "For example," Zugsmith says, "a question such as, 'Are you aware that if you sell your building this year, you will avoid higher capital gains taxes?' would be an excellent beginning to a potentially productive telephone conversation." Whether your business sells medical supplies or pizza ovens, come up with your own differentiator. If you can get across what makes you different from the other people calling and convince the recipient that talking to you will solve a problem -- well, then you're in.
4. Listen. It may sound obvious, but you can spend so much time preparing for a cold call that you forget you're trying to engage in a conversation, not simply blast them with information. Wendy Hooper, who owns her own real estate firm in Orange, County, Calif., correctly observes that if you don't listen and are so focused on saying what you intended on saying from the onset, your prospect "will never want to work with you. You're the idiot who didn't listen."
5. Just make the damn call. Some people start experiencing flop sweat when preparing to call a prospective client or business contact. After all, who wants to be rejected or undeservedly treated like some dimwitted telemarketer? But in the end, you're either going to make things happen by picking up the phone or you're going to choose to do nothing by not making the call. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, face your (probably) unfounded fears, pick up the phone and say hello.
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to AOL Small Business. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 11/4/10.