How to Overcome Barriers to Early-Stage Cold Calling

By Virun Rampersad, Executive Coach
Two people inside iPhones reaching outside of the iPhones and shaking hands.

Companies looking for an edge in sales often find success comes down to how the buyer’s decision criteria align with a provider’s strengths – or how well the pitch resonates with prospects. By engaging a buyer early, reps can build important relationships, help frame the narrative, and influence the decision criteria to their advantage. Indeed, Forrester found that vendors doing the most to shape the prospect’s vision of a solution win three out of four subsequent purchase decisions. That’s a significant number when you consider how many calls a rep usually makes to close one deal.

Given the impact, one would think sales teams would be laser focused on early sales call engagements. However, a few issues tend to deter teams from taking this route, including:

  • Buyers are busy and reluctant to take a meeting without a compelling need.
  • Buyers prefer to do their own online research rather than take a pitch from a salesperson.
  • Early-stage calling is a low-hit-rate activity; a large percentage of early-stage engagements do not result in a sales opportunity.

For these reasons, sales teams tend to focus more on opportunities where it is clear the client has budget and is seriously looking to act in the near term, e.g., when there is an issued or announced RFP. This creates a conundrum for sales leaders. On one hand, they are at a significant disadvantage to competitors that have engaged in early-stage cold calling. On the other, the difficulty and low hit rate make it difficult to justify early-stage cold calling. So, the question is: “What can sales leaders do to influence their prospects’ early decision criteria in a cost-effective manner?”

There are three approaches that yield results, but all require some level of investment.

Strategic Advisory Engagements.

For high-value opportunities (“elephants”), engaging a potential buyer in a design thinking exercise to frame their future solution can be very effective. This approach requires the seller to invest in talent and requires the buyer to invest time. When done correctly, the client comes away with a clear, compelling vision of the future and the motivation to act. While they may still utilize a competitive bidding process, the early engagement puts the seller in the catbird seat – which, for big-ticket items, is a very attractive value proposition.

Relationship Development Initiatives.

Despite the recent bad press, cross-selling remains a viable growth strategy. By providing relationship managers with subject matter expert (SME) support, sales teams can quickly assess existing clients to identify suitable prospects (e.g., whether the client could have a need for the service, their ability to pay for it, and their appetite to engage). Once a potential lead is identified, the relationship team leverages their contacts to engage the appropriate people at the client in discovery sessions to validate the opportunity. Even in cases where the client is not ready to act, this approach lets the relationship coverage team preserve the first mover advantage by keeping the lead warm.

Digital Marketing Leads.

An increasingly common approach to generate leads is to create Thought Leadership pieces and promote them through multiple channels, including conferences and social media. With buyers spending more time online, this content can reach a very wide audience. This reach helps justify the investment firms must make to produce quality content, measure the responses, and capture, qualify, and follow up on resulting leads. For this to be effective, there needs to be a tight linkage between the marketing department that typically produces these promotions and the sales leaders who must ensure there is follow-up on leads – typically through junior staff.

Note that all of these approaches are still challenged by low or slow hit rates. Therefore, firms should ensure three things are in place with each of these options:

  • Teams employ a scalable, repeatable process that is cost-efficient and operates at scale.
  • The engagements should ensure they generate value beyond producing sales leads, and include things such as brand and relationship enhancement, as well as market and competitive intelligence.
  • Leads identified are tracked through the pipeline and promoted so the competitive advantage gained (e.g., the ability to influence the client’s motivation to act, their decision criteria, and even the RFP itself) – is clearly understood and appreciated.

Taking these steps will enable early-stage engagements to move from an “all or nothing” proposition to one that generates tangible benefits, with significant potential for upside capture. In this way the investment becomes more easily justified – giving sales teams a valuable competitive tool.

Virun Rampersad is an executive coach focusing on supporting mid- to senior-level sales, relationship management, and change management executives.