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Sales Secrets of an Interactive Biz-Dev Guy (Part 1): Cold-Calling for Fun and Profit

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Before any assets are organized, before any wire frames are laid out, before any sketches are started, before any pixels are designed, before any lines of code are written, and before any server environments are prepared, before anything happens... you have to sign a project.

You mean projects don't just fall from the sky? Well, in one form or another it has to start from somewhere, whether it's a referral, a new client, or an ongoing customer. Even with a killer portfolio, it's not always feasible to wait for the phone to ring.

If you're able to just snap your fingers and make work appear on command, more power to you. If not, and you ever find yourself having to do some sales, what follows are some musings from the business development department here at Firstborn about preparation, organization, getting and staying in touch, and keeping it all going. Sounds just like a project to me.

Promises, Promises

Flashback to June 2000: I was hired as a producer at Firstborn for what was at the time the company's largest client. I clearly remember on one of my first interviews asking the owners, "I'm not going to have to do any... sales... am I?" "Oh, no, no, no," they assured me. Cut to one year later, the dot-com bubble has come and gone, and we need to mobilize fast. What to do? "Oh, Kevin...?"


Fade to five years later. Under the guidance of Firstborn's President, Michael Ferdman, I'm now the company's vice-president of business development. We've tripled in size since I started; last year was our biggest year ever, and this year we're already surpassing that. (Yeah, I admit it, this last bit was a little gratuitous—what can I say; I'm in sales.) I thank my lucky stars for Firstborn's incredibly talented team of designers, developers, and producers, who are the heart of what makes our company successful and who create work that makes my job so much easier. But it wasn't always such a cakewalk. In fact, I slipped on the icing a few times before I was able to run with it.

Start Me Up

Like any daunting enterprise, preparation and research are vital. In my case, I started by doing a survey of all the classics in sales and motivational literature—Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Anthony Robbins... (OK, maybe not Anthony Robbins.)

Once you feel you're ready to dive in, your first task before reaching out to others is to look inward and define what your company is all about and how you differ from all the competition. We call this the 30-second elevator speech (in case you ever find yourself between floors with the head of interactive marketing at Coca Cola). This positioning statement can and should be used in a variety of venues, including cold calls (more about the dreaded c.c. words in a moment), emails, parties, subway encounters, rafting expeditions, and wherever you can find potential clients. Make sure you have your pitch down; make it lean and mean; practice on your friends, loved ones, coworkers, and psychotherapists.

Even though you're the sales guy, don't let that stop you from learning everything you can about what's happening at your company. At Firstborn, I make it a point to constantly check in with the development of all the projects we're working on. In addition to making sure everything's up to speed and our clients are happy, I soak up as much as I can from our producers, designers, and developers to get their take on how we're accomplishing the goals of our clients. After all, I'm going to have to talk about these new projects some day to a new prospect.

Tools of the Trade

It might also be a good idea to gather some tools to get and keep you organized. At Firstborn, we all collaborated with our developers to create an intranet with a very handy-dandy contact management application that I use every single day, keeping track of all sales activities, prospects, tasks to do, fantasy football scores, and a whole lot more.

There are plenty of off-the-shelf programs that serve this function (no plugs here) and even a simple database or well-structured Excel spreadsheet would do you just fine. In any event, keep good records. Just as our project managers document all communication with our clients, there's no reason why the sales process shouldn't be as organized.

On Target

Now you're chomping at the bit, ready to find that $1 million project. You'll try just about anybody, right? Wrong approach. The shotgun method is far less effective than focusing on a few specific industries or markets. Your odds are just better in the long run with a concentrated plan of attack. Use the cruise missile instead of carpet bombing. This is war! Then, do your homework. Find out who the decision makers are. Read every trade publication you can get your hands on in the markets you're going after. Go to events, seminars, award shows, conventions, blogs—anywhere where a potential client might be. If you can't afford a public relations agent, think of some innovative ways to get your name out there.

Hurts Like New Shoes

Now we've come to the reason why nobody wants to do sales. The cold call. Harbinger of doom. Evil incarnate, sitting on your desk waiting to swallow you and suck you into the bowels of the earth. Surely cold-calling isn't the only way to generate new business (see suggestions above). Best leave dialing up a complete stranger to some other sucker. But, in case you're interested in a surefire way to get meetings with the people you want to know, you might want to at least consider this onerous task.

Nobody likes rejection, but if you're going to do cold-calling, do it while accepting the fact that the more you do it, the better it gets. Trust me on this. Will you ever have a 100% success rate? Of course not. That's beyond reality. Think about it: The best hitters in baseball fail 70% of the time.

Just remember to be yourself and leave the used car salesman in you at the dealership. Remember that there are people out there who can really use your services. You can make their life easier. You can make them a star!

And always keep in mind that after the first time you talk to someone, they're no longer a stranger (wow, that was deep). And they haven't said no until they say no (did it again).

Make your pitch short, since everyone is busy and doesn't have much time to talk to annoying salesmen who call. Get to the point as soon as possible, which should be how you can help them with their job and what sets you apart from everyone else. Keep your goals realistic; don't start big. Start by laying some foundation work by introducing what your company has to offer and staying at the top of their mind. Focus on getting your foot in the door by asking for a brief meeting even if they don't have anything available right now. After all, relationship building is the name of the game. And don't forget to make nice with gatekeepers—receptionists and assistants who can be your ally in gaining valuable information. The sales cycle can be a long process and can require a lot of effort over the long haul.

Keep on Keeping on

I think it was major league baseball manager Lou Piniella who said that being a successful player depended upon how well you do the basics every day. Same thing with sales. If you're consistent with it, you will get somewhere. Every day set aside time to make those not-so-scary cold calls, keep in touch with contacts you've already made, do some research, fire off recent URLs and keep up with industry trends.

How much should you keep in touch with people? There's no set rule to this; just make it often enough to keep up your visibility and not so frequently that they will have to file a restraining order.

If you keep your sales machine working on a regular basis, your network of contacts will grow exponentially. You won't have to make as many cold calls as you used to. And those RFPs will come rolling in (more on that and the topic of negotiation in a future missive.)

Biz Dev or Not Biz Dev

Of course, the strategies you employ to win and keep business are limitless. Cold calls are just one weapon in your arsenal. All individuals and companies have their own style, methods, and needs. Some companies don't even have a business development department. At Firstborn, having a dedicated sales process has enabled us to home in on the specific types of projects we want to work on and the relationships we want to foster. We pride ourselves on how well a creative/technology shop is run as a business. So, by the same token, there's no reason that creativity should be precluded from your sales process.

Sales Secrets

So, by now, you're probably saying to yourself, Hey, Arthur's just spewing out what amounts to just plain common sense. Exactly. This is not rocket science. Just hard work!

And some real trade secrets? There's no way in I'm giving mine away just for the sake of this article. So stop reading this and get on that phone!


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Kevin Arthur is vice-president of business development at interactive design agency Firstborn Multimedia (www.firstbornmultimedia.com).

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