In most of the US, the winter weather outside is frightful, but that's no reason for cold calls to feel the same way. Small business personnel typically do multiple jobs, and sometimes they get stuck doing something that's not comfortable, like cold calling.

To address that marketing challenge, readers offer strategies for warming up those cold calls.

Making a cold call less cold

I have just started my own industrial sales business and sell filtration media (belts and air filters) to wastewater plants, papermills, food-processing plants and dredging companies. Most of the time, I need to speak to a machine operator, and these people are busy; I only have maybe a minute to get in my sales pitch.

I am a little shy, and I have to cold call quite a bit; and I do get pretty nervous. I know I can sell my product and have a lot of direct contacts. Plus, there is only a medium amount of competition. The "I know you are busy and I won't take up but just a minute of your time..." sounds too old and tired. What is a good first line to say to prospects, and what other cold calling tips can you provide?

—Patti M., Owner

Here are three steps for putting a sweater on those cold calls.

1. Know what to say.

2. Get to know the prospects.

3. Focus on the prospects' needs.

Know what to say

When you figure out a call is a sales call, what do you do? Everything you can to get off the phone? Hang up? Do you handle sales calls the same way at home and at work? Shanon VanHuss, marketing representative at WK2 and Associates, knows that many recipients are prepared with a "No" whenever detecting a sales call:

Before I call, I send a letter with a brochure so that I have something to call about. Then I start, "I sent you a letter. Did you get it?" and "Do you have any questions?" If the mailing is memorable enough, you should get a "Yes" every time, or at least an "I think so." If you want to take advantage of the "No," instead of "I know you are busy..." try "Is this a bad time?" They say "No" and you are in. The worst-case scenario is a hang up. If you aren't getting hang ups, you aren't making enough calls. Most of all, relax.

Flashback to college, when our professors encouraged us to think beyond yes/no questions and ask open-ended questions instead. A reader explains how to ask these types of questions:

When we train our sales reps and share experiences amongst them, we find that open-ended questions work well: "How much do you spend on...?" "How do you solve this problem today?" When you get the answer, it is easier to sell a meeting. Many salespeople try to sell the product right away. Don't. Sell the meeting so you can sell the product. Practice a 10-30-second statement that introduces you and triggers a question/doubt/need. And then ask the open-ended question.

Jill says, "Be honest and break the ice with a humorous tone along the lines of 'Hi, my name is so 'n so from company ABC and I'll be honest... this is a sales call. It'll only take a few moments. If you're not interested after a few minutes, I'll let you go. Do you have some time to chat?'"

Have your contacts—people you're comfortable with—listen to your pitch and review it, as David Kuhner, president and owner of Advanced Marketing Strategies, LLC, suggests:

You stated the fact that you have contacts, those people I presume you feel quite comfortable with. Ask them to review your pitch and your product solutions. Give them a call and set up a meeting. Ask them to challenge you. You want to be sure to present the benefits of your product offering, so start your meeting with questions about their applications, challenges and expectations for products they procure. Be sure to ask what it would take for them to give your products a chance over those they currently use.

After thanking your friends for the review of your new business and product offering, ask for a few names of those you might call with similar application needs. Then begin your next cold-calling initiative with, "Hello, my name is Patti. A mutual acquaintance of ours, [Name], suggested I call to introduce myself and the products we have to offer. Do you have just a minute?"

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Get to know the prospects

Do you enjoy talking about yourself and your work? Christine Tursky, marketing manager with SouthTech Systems finds most people do:

When I started a field-sales job with Hewlett Packard, I spent the first few months calling contacts and saying "I'm new to your account, so I'd like to come out and learn about you and what your organization does. Would that be okay?" Customers feel less defensive because you're not trying to sell to them, and they agree almost every time. I also got an added bonus of uncovering more leads by walking around on-site and talking to people. Once I had met customers in this context, it was easier to get their attention next time I phoned or visited to talk about our products.

Mike Scott, sales manager with Diggy, breaks the sales approach into two calls:

The first would be a fact finding mission—a "what kind of plant do you have?" approach. For example, "Mister Engineer, if I could get an idea of the type of plant you have and the supplies you use, I might be able to suggest some ways to save money or help your maintenance cycles last longer. The other approach is "What is the worst thing you have to deal with in a day?" This gets the prospects thinking about themselves, and everyone has a story to tell.

I've found that once the prospects talks about their problems, the one minute turns into an hour and a cup of coffee. And if you come back on the next call with a solution, they may just shut down the plant while you talk them through it because you're no longer just another salesperson on their rounds. Also, if you get a good feel for what they do, you may not find an opportunity at that firm and are free to move on to the next prospect without feeling like you bumbled the last call.

Focus on the prospects' needs

What's your potential users' pain or hot button? Anuj Ahuja of Omicron Education Services advises that as you get to know the prospects, you must look at why someone would want your product or service. Ahuja says, "Identify the prospects' pain area and develop your tagline and selling around that. When you call, ask, 'Do you face this problem?' or 'Are you getting these features with your current product?'"

Craig Kaltner, US sales manager with Hemscott, Inc., shares two principles that have worked for him—relevance and belief:

Use your industry knowledge and your strong contact base to get right to the heart of what matters—their problems. Back up your proposed solution with utter belief in your product. True belief in the product is authentic and compelling. Belief and relevance, coupled with your own personal style of delivery, makes your call worth remembering much more than a canned opening line.

A reader recommends you introduce yourself and follow that with a benefit-related question that your product answers:

This gets the prospect talking and takes the pressure off you. For example, if your belts last 50 percent longer than the competition's, ask "How much downtime do you have every time you switch a belt?" and "How much does that cost your company in lost productivity?" Keep the questions short and to the point.

On the other hand, according to Allan G. Lie, creative director with Golden West Radio, the first line isn't even something to worry about:

Be yourself. Anything else sounds contrived, and the barriers start going up. You may even want to start with "I find it awkward speaking with people I've never met before," if that's the way you feel. If you're willing to be honest about that, then they're more likely to believe you're being honest about everything else.

Since everybody eats, you may want to offer a free breakfast or take them out for lunch, as you gain an uninterrupted portion of their time. If it's lunch, offer to drive—that adds more time for your pitch. If necessary, you can offer to bring lunch and meet at their office. While you might feel a need to be friendly, avoid wasting time with idle chatter. You can remind the client that because their time is valuable, you're getting right to the point.

Also, use your business cards as a selling tool. Have a bold, visible line that reads: "The three-minute recorded message that saves you hundreds of dollars" and include the phone number. Write a concise list of benefits your product provides, and record it on your answering machine. Provide an opportunity for prospects to leave a name and number to get all the details. You could just as easily direct them to a Web site.

One more support for focusing on benefits comes from Michael Hostetler, marketing coordinator with Finance Center FCU:

When you cold call, start by explaining what your product does for the recipient. Have confidence in your product and your pitch, and it carries over to your calls. If you feel strongly about the quality of your product, and you can easily demonstrate that to your buyer, then it alleviates your nervous behavior. If you focus the message directly toward the personal benefits of the people you are talking with, they are more apt to listen to your message.

Next Marketing Challenge: Can You Help?

Have email, need permission

We are a small company with potential clients. After over two years of research, we have a world-patented, point-of-sale product that can advertise four separate products or tell a story for one product in stores. Using in-store advertising like this can quickly brand a product or company.

We have email addresses for top-end executives in advertising and creative agencies. These agencies are interested in new advertising techniques and have many clients who are looking for unique point-of-sale systems. Although we have their direct email addresses, we do not have permission to send email to them. How do we contact them to get their permission to send an email about our new offering?

—Stan, Marketing Manager

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Hank Stroll ( is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.