The Science of Cold Calling

By Geoffrey James  •  February 2, 2010

Sales reps who hate cold calling will be relieved to learn that science has come to their rescue. A recent study suggests that cold-calling success may depend less on your sales skills than on how soon you follow up on a lead and the time that you make your calls.

Dr. James Oldroyd from the Kellogg School of Management recently examined the electronic logs of more than a million cold calls made by thousands of sales professionals inside approximately 50 companies. “Using a variety of analysis techniques, we extracted patterns of success and failure which reveal that some of the conventional wisdom concerning cold calling is just plain wrong,” he explains.

For example, most cold-calling experts recommend putting aside a certain amount of time every weekday to make calls. However, Oldroyd’s research indicates that Thursday is by far the best day to contact a lead in order to qualify him or her as a prospect. By contrast, Friday is the worst day, by almost 20 percent when compared to Thursday.

Similarly, some experts recommend making cold calls around 1:00 p.m., during the natural work lull that follows the midday meal. Other experts recommend calling in midmorning, when your own energy is at its peak. Turns out, though, that those are the wrong times entirely. The best times to call to qualify a lead, according to Oldroyd’s findings, are from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. In fact, 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. is 164 percent better than calling right after lunch.

Conventional wisdom also says that you’ve got anywhere from a few days to a week to follow up on a lead that’s shown some interest in your offerings (by accessing your Website, for instance). Not so. Oldroyd’s study reveals that in B2B selling environments, the best odds of qualifying a lead happen within 20 minutes after interest is shown. Best case, you should call within five minutes, which is 21 times more likely to result in a qualified prospect than if you wait an entire half hour.

Another maxim of cold calling is that the routine is pretty much the same, regardless of the target industry. But that’s not the case. Some industries, such as communications and information technology, require that cold calling take place almost immediately after a lead has shown interest in order to be effective. Other industries, such as financial services and healthcare, can tolerate longer response times, even as long as 24 hours.

Dr. Oldroyd cautions that his research, while definitive, is not yet complete. “We still need to study how the time factor influences selling at different price points,” he says. Oldroyd also notes that individual companies may find that their success rates are influenced by other factors. “It’s absolutely vital to measure and analyze your own sales data to see what’s working and what’s not,” he advises.

As a general rule, Dr. Oldroyd believes his research strongly suggests that companies should realign and reprioritize their sales team deployments. “It’s probably better to have inside sales reps sitting around and making cold calls whenever a lead shows an interest than paying them to make cold calls to follow up on old leads,” he explains.

He also believes that companies should staff up their inside sales forces, rather than invest more on field sales. Fortunately, that’s a trend that’s already taking place, according to Oldroyd. “Companies are adding new, inside sales departments at a rate of 7.5 percent annual growth,” he says. “By 2012, nearly 800,000 companies worldwide will have added inside sales departments where none existed before.”