A Cold-Calling Classic: Handling Handouts

In hunting down new customers, you're going to meet some folks who expect gifts upfront. Here's what to tell them

"What do I do when I'm out cold calling and prospective customers ask me what reward they'll get if they recommend me to their boss?" a client asked me recently. At first, the frankness of the question took me aback, but then I was glad her customer was so direct. At least my client knew where she stood.

Years ago, I was taught to imagine that everyone I met was tuned to radio station WIIFM—What's In It for Me? The intent was to remind me that my prospective customers straight away wanted to hear about the benefits I could offer their businesses.

It was, and is, a great piece of advice. Unfortunately, today some customers ask sales professionals WIIFM and mean it literally. The customers want to have it both ways—receiving personal gifts from potential vendors and regular paychecks from their employers.

Our Heartfelt Thanks

I told my client to respond to requests for pre-deal gifts with something like, "Every company decides how to spend its marketing budget. Some choose to spend it to say please and some use it to say thank you. The companies that spend their marketing money saying please—that is, before they make a sale—hope to somehow buy your business. But then when you buy, the company doesn't have any money left to continue the relationship, and you'll get dropped like a hot potato."

I told her to continue with "Instead, my company spends its time and money saying thank you to customers who buy from us. That way, our customers stay happy for a long time, over the many years we end up doing business together. For instance, for some of our long-time, steady customers, we've said thank you by delivering delicious fruit trays and seasonal treats.

"One February, we even dressed up our vice-president in a heart costume and he delivered chocolates and sang a song of love to each of our long-time customers. As our customer, you'll improve your bottom line by buying great products and services from us, and you'll also enjoy our thank-you gifts for your business."

Make New Friends

So don't let the fear of getting asked for "please gifts" deter you from cold calling. You can always apply my please vs. thank you idea. New customers are the lifeblood of every successful sales organization. You simply must set aside some time each week to look for new business or risk eventually shrinking revenues and profits. Here are some ideas to help you achieve more high-quality cold calls:

1. Set activity goals. When I had a territory and a quota, my boss made us turn in "call reports" on every sales call. The understanding was we had either better be at quota or have a lot of call reports. My boss knew that constant activity would lead to sales, and this kept our sales funnel full. Aim for one or two more cold calls each day, and you're practically guaranteed increased sales.

2. Qualify Quickly. On the first visit or two to prospective customers, it's critical that you qualify them. My three standard criteria are: Do they have the money, the need, and a sense of urgency for what I'm offering (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/18/05, "What Counts: Need, Money, Urgency")? If they don't have all three, quickly try to develop the missing ingredient. If that's not possible, agree on a follow-up plan and leave. Go find prospects who are qualified to buy from you now.

3. Manage Your Time. The best way to use your time wisely is to use a list of questions you've prepared ahead of time to understand your prospect's situation. This shows respect for their time, too. Then at the close of your meeting, even if they can't buy from you, you've earned the right to ask for referrals to their connections who are more qualified to buy.

4. Build Connections with Your Customers. Do your research ahead of time and find out a few key facts about all new prospects and their companies. When you meet them, use your research to build connections to them as individuals. If they're very private people, you can still connect to their job, their title, their history with the company, or as fellow human beings. You have something in common with every person on this earth—find it and use it.

5. Show Empathy. One of the strongest tools in any salesperson's toolbox is empathy. If I have clients who are qualified to buy but just can't bring themselves to get started, I usually reach across the desk or table, touch their hands, look them in the eye and say, "It's O.K." My goal is to make a safe emotional spot for them to either step forward and buy or reveal what's really holding them back so I can address it—and ask for the order.

Be open to the fact that occasionally your clients will have pressing, but personal, problems. Maybe they're waiting for the results of critical medical tests which may determine if they're even coming to work for the next year or so. Sometimes they're just plain scared. Whatever it is, a game of matching wits or high pressure isn't going to get their signature on your contracts. Whereas being genuinely empathetic just might do the trick.

Face it, your business needs new customers, but in seeking them, you're going to meet some folks who are blatantly unethical. Try to sell them, but if they insist in asking for "please gifts" and that's not your style, go find other prospective customers to call on who play from your rulebook.

If you need help motivating yourself to make cold calls, picture a mob of frenzied customers who would each make more money or be happier if they bought products and services from you. Now start cold calling until you find them—and close the sale. Happy selling!

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