So recently I was targeted by a certain sales rep with a certain prominent company that does inbound marketing software – basically, marketing automation that relies mainly on social media and pay-per-click campaigns. They stay in business because people hate to cold call. I’m not going to name names, but if you work in marketing today, you almost certainly have seen this company around.
I’m a writer. I communicate for a living. I work with engineers, tech companies, and marketing firms, charged with assembling written marketing collateral for outfits that make complicated, practical things.
For what I do – and for many of the companies I work for – there is very little value in making things sound sexy. The things we sell work for a living. They do stuff. They are needed, and they are worth the money. Most of my job is listening to very smart people, and then getting that bottom line value across to other very smart people.
In short, the messages that tend to work for my own clients are the ones that draw the shortest lines between two points. They cut to the chase and stay sharp. They don’t play around or equivocate.
My business is also fairly stable. I found the systems that work for me a long time ago, and while technology improves and a certain degree of adaptation is always necessary, the time of tragedy and revolution is long past. That experience also means that I’ve read all those same telemarketing and sales books, am familiar with the tricks, and am totally aware of what you are doing when you call.
I don’t know that I’m the typical small business prospect. Then again, I’m not sure anyone is.
Reaching Out In The Worst Way
Our tale today is about a young sales rep. We shall call him Mark. That is not his real name.
I’m sure Mark is a nice guy who is just trying to do his job, and that he has little control over the material he uses to do prospecting runs. Even so, a lot of illustrative mistakes were made in a short amount of time, and they are worth recounting.
Timing and repetition. To be fair, Mark couldn’t have possibly known this, but I’m not even remotely a morning person. I live in California, and rarely will I schedule a client call before 10am PT/1pm ET, for one very important reason: it takes that long for the caffeine to kick in and my higher brain functions to start working properly. It’s just a touchy time of the day to deal with me.
Many sales manuals out there just sort of blanket-advise hitting prospects in the morning, before they get a chance to get too buried into their day. For me, at least, it’s entirely the wrong thing to do. Your sales attempts are guaranteed to either be ignored, or else responded to in a way that you don’t want.
Repetition is a related problem. Yes, we all know that “on average” it requires at least seven “touches” to land a new client. That’s a very old adage, and quite frankly, I doubt it is even true anymore.
Nevertheless, the prevailing wisdom is to keep plinking away at a prospect until they give in, which is undoubtedly why Mark kept coming back despite my silence.
Yes, Mark. I hear you. I just don’t need you right now. And you’re irritating me. Please stop irritating me. I’m still working on my morning coffee and I have a deadline this afternoon.
Unearned familiarity. Another outdated sales maxim that needs to be taken out back and shot in the head: warming up those cold calls with a reminder that we’re all friends and you’re just trying to help.
Mark started off this chain of sales attempts with a bit of email flattery, assuring me that he had reviewed my website and was fascinated by the work I did and the people i worked for. All while never once supporting that with any detail. (Which clients – VMWare? Intel? Which work types? Industry whitepapers? Websites? What specifically about Load Bearing Creative do you see as a perfect fit for your service?)
The overall tone of we’re-all-friends familiarity to both his email and voice mails turned me off from the get-go. I certainly prefer to be on friendly terms with the people I work with, but you have to earn that. It comes later in the relationship. Right now it’s just unwanted presumption.
It Gets Worse, and No Means No
So after several days of faux-familiar, generalized sales attempts, it was Friday morning and yet another voice mail from Mark waited to greet me when I got to my desk. By this point, I had long ago read all about his company and their services, and had thoroughly assessed their potential value to my business. It wasn’t going to happen now. In the future? Who knows. But I had other things going on and his company wasn’t going to be a part of that.
So I emailed Mark and simply said, please stop calling. I’m not interested in your services right now.
Objection-baiting. This was where Mark should have said, okay, that’s fine, mind if I check back in a few months? In most companies, the big turns happen quarterly, and the smaller turns happen monthly. So in my experience, if a need isn’t on the horizon, calling back in a week isn’t going to change that. You have to give them the necessary time to change up beats. And then leave them alone.
Alas, that’s not what Mark did. Instead, he asked me (“out of curiosity”) why I wasn’t interested. He also then pitched their service again.
This is another ancient sales technique known as meeting the objection. Get the prospect to clearly state why they don’t want to buy today, and then beat that objection into submission. Fish for information and keep the conversation going. It probably works a lot better in face-to-face situations than over an email exchange.
Mark, my reasons are my own, and they’re none of your business.
There is a season to all things, Mark, and your season is not now. If you want further explanation, I’m not interested because you haven’t made me interested. I’m sleepy and irritated by your sales tactics. I’m not really listening to your pitch anymore. So seriously, give me some space.
Shaming. Once again, this is where Mark should have simply asked if I minded that he call back in a month or two. He didn’t do that. Instead, a few minutes later I received another email response from Mark stating that if I didn’t want to grow my business, well, then he didn’t want to partner with me anyway. And then he followed that up with yet another pitch for their service and a request for a meeting.
Seriously, Mark? You’re going to play that game now?
I’ve already told you – twice – that I’m not interested in your service and that I’d prefer that you no longer contact me. Rather than simply accepting that, thanking me for my time, and moving on, now you’re suggesting that I’m neglecting my business. And also that, well, maybe you don’t want to work with me, after all. But here’s one last chance to convince Mark otherwise!
This was where I finally had had enough. I wrote Mark back and spelled out exactly what I thought about his tactics. In the span of 25 minutes on a Friday morning, his responses had taken me from unresponsive (but perhaps willing to talk later) to a complete stonewall against ever working with his company. And I told him that.
I’ll admit, I could have been nicer. But it was early.
An hour later, Mark sheepishly wished me a good weekend and left my life.
Selling Inbound With Bad Outbound
Very few people actually enjoy the labor of sales. I certainly don’t. Most of us would rather spend a few hours in a dentist’s chair than a few minutes on a cold call.
That’s the major selling point to so-called inbound marketing. You don’t have to do any of that stuff, they say, if you have the right content strategies and PPC campaigns and your blog is getting traction in all the right places. Your customers will all come to you. No stress required.
And inbound marketing does have its place. Much of what I do – technical marketing writing – is in support of inbound marketing efforts, and I can attest to the fact that they do work. But at some point, you still have to pick up the phone and talk to people, and that introduces uncertainty and emotion into what most of us would unrealistically prefer to be a clinical and mechanized process.
So I now wonder if part of this company’s strategy is to sell their inbound marketing services by amply demonstrating how awkward, unproductive, and just generally bad cold calling can get. Because they certainly don’t seem to be training their people to do it well.
Part of the problem, I think, is our habit of thinking of it in terms like “cold call”, “warm call”, “prospect”, “closing”, etc. – the jargon that we use to distance ourselves from the actual human interaction, in a futile attempt to tame it. Looking at the sales process as a series of chess gambits. It only makes the whole thing so much more complicated than it needs to be or should be.
Introducing yourself to potential customers isn’t really all that hard. It’s a lot like meeting strangers in real life. Don’t insinuate. Don’t flatter. Be patient. Understand that lucky timing is more important than technique. Be willing to be the fool. Be okay with failing. Be satisfied with “not right now”.
Show respect. For time, for attention, for knowledge, for experience, for feelings. For people.
I’m endlessly amazed at how well people tend to respond to that. Had Mark approached me that way, things perhaps could have gone in a different direction. But, unfortunately, to Mark I was only a prospect, a potential sale. I wasn’t really a person. I was a performance metric.
So respect is all well and good. But, you may ask, how does that make my outbound marketing any easier or more efficient?
And to that, I answer this: it doesn’t. It’s not supposed to. You’re supposed to have that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. You’re supposed to be a bit afraid. A bit dreading. A bit vulnerable.
That’s a natural reaction to respectfully approaching a stranger with a proposal.
If you’re making it easier for yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
You should be making it easier for them.
It’s not about you.
It’s about them.
And no amount of marketing technique or technology is ever going to change that.