How to Make Fear Your Friend When Cold Calling Prospects

By Chris Beall, CEO, ConnectAndSell
A man in a suit holding is hand up to his mouth in fear

The phone is making a comeback in B2B selling. Why? There are at least four reasons.

  1. Though email is still cheap and efficient, research by HubSpot (and others who know and care) shows it has become much less effective as the pandemic drove up sales email volumes while open rates and reply rates dropped drastically.
  2. Many companies in many industries have been disrupted, and a phone conversation is one of the few ways to learn who is still working, where they are working, and with what responsibilities and concerns.
  3. The longer-than-expected time spent at home appears to have made more people open to having a conversation with a stranger, partially because of their need for social contact.
  4. While travel by planes, trains, and automobiles is returning to normal, hybrid work is here to stay. That means meeting prospects at their workplace, or even nearby, without an appointment has become permanently problematic.

So, sales professionals need to become more efficient and effective on the phone to keep their pipeline full. And that means becoming an expert cold caller, because you can’t have an unscheduled follow-up conversation – much less an appointment on your calendar – without a first, unscheduled, cold conversation.

Therefore, phone skills, especially cold conversation skills, are at a premium. Our company, ConnectAndSell, connects millions of B2B sales conversations every year, so I have the luxury of listening to many thousands of examples of what not to do.

My conclusion from all this listening and analysis is that most reps have a flawed model for a cold conversation. As a result, they try to take projects on a journey that leads nowhere. I hear prospects say, “I’m too busy,” “We’re set,” and, “Send me an email” much more often than I hear them say, “Sure! Let’s meet!”

The root cause of all these common failure points is a flawed model of the cold conversation journey. The rep tries to establish rapport by

  1. Dealing with their own fear of the prospect’s likely reaction to being interrupted by an invisible stranger.
  2. Trying to build relevance, often by mentioning the names of well-known companies with which their firm works.
  3. Stating a value proposition, often using language approved by their marketing department.

At this point, most reps are selling the product, not the meeting. So, when they try to close for the meeting, they get the typical, “Send me some information” response. In other words, they take the prospect on a journey from annoyance to nowhere. Is it any wonder reps develop call reluctance?

The flaw in the standard cold-conversation model is the assumption that the rep’s fear plus the awkwardness of ambushing a busy person are impediments to success. However, it turns out that the prospect’s predictable emotional state is the key to guiding them on a journey that is much more likely to lead to an agreement to meet.

What is that emotional state? Fear. The ambushed prospect is afraid of the rep – an invisible stranger who reminds their ancient emotional-brain of unfamiliar people showing up in the dark with bad intentions. The feeling of danger elicited by an invisible stranger is primitive and ubiquitous.

It’s also a powerful platform for the caller, who now has merely to relieve that fear by first showing they see the world through the prospect’s eyes, and then by demonstrating they are competent to solve a problem their prospect has right now.

And what is that problem? Simple. If you are the caller, you are the problem. This gives you the power to offer a plan to solve the problem – at which point the prospect will involuntarily trust you and even listen to what you have to say.

With trust established, it’s a straightforward move to curiosity, which is the driving emotion for accepting the offer to meet. There are a few mines to avoid stepping on, like making a claim of being great (which evokes psychological reactance, or what I call “the pushback of the third-grade playground”) and the fatal use of marketing language (which is subtly insulting and elicits the “We’re set” objection – inviting an argument you can’t win).

From curiosity, a little insistence quickly completes the journey to commitment to meet: the end state of a successful cold conversation.

Note what’s missing: rapport, claims of greatness, personalization, a customized value proposition based on detailed research, and marketing language. Instead, we are left with a simple, teachable cold-calling framework that starts with the prospect’s reliable fear, converts that fear to priceless trust, and steps simply from trust to curiosity and commitment, leaving meaningful objections and concerns to be explored in the mutually-agreeable discovery meeting.

So, as with so many challenges, cold conversations can be approached a hard way and an easy way. Both ways have the same goal: an agreement to meet. By recognizing and using the prospect’s fear from being ambushed by an invisible stranger, any sales professional – with effective training and coaching – can become a competent and confident cold conversationalist and master of a critical skill whose time has come again.

Chris Beall is the CEO of ConnectAndSell.