By Andrew Neitlich

How NOT to do a sales call

By Andrew Neitlich

I got a call today on my cell phone from a salesperson from what he described as a publicly traded search engine and optimization firm. I took it, because I need material for this blog. He obliged.

As usual, he started the call without his name, just saying, “How are you?”

So I said, “Fine, who is this?” Already I know this is an annoying sales call with somebody without a clue. Again, I need content for my blog. He continues to oblige.

He tells me what his firm does and begins reading a lengthy paragraph about his services. He tells me he got my name from my website, which happens to now be off line. Again, I let him continue, for content.

I interrupt him. “Look,” I say. “Feel free to email me about your services.”

He says, “If you just let me tell you a little more…”

I interrup and say I don’t have time and am not really interested.

He says, “Well, don’t you want more traffic to your website?”

I say, because I am annoyed, “No, not right now.”

He responds, ‘Then why are you online?”

I call him a stupid —– idiot and hang up. So he missed the chance to email me information, too.

I guess companies hire salespeople to make calls like these because it works. But I’ve never seen this cold calling approach work, and I’ve worked with lots of companies that have tried it.

A sales call can work these days, but only if:

– You start with a letter that clearly conveys your value;

– Follow up with a call that begins with a short description of how you can help them get results;

– Focus on a small list of target prospects, so you know something about them when you call and can customize your opening with valuable insights;

– Follow up for a while with valuable information to build a relationship, and be patient.

Don’t make stupid, one-shot sales calls like the poor soul transcribed above.

  • Patrick_325

    Wow, Andrew – i know these guys can be a pain in the ass but that was a little harsh the way you treated him!

  • bcm

    Good timing for this post, I’ve really been thinking about taking the cold calling approach as of late. I figure I can either pay a firm in Canada about $1,100 to make a 1,000 calls from India and no one will understand them or I can make 20 or 40 calls a day myself and yes it would probably take a couple hours but I think it could be effective.

    I totally agree with the you need to know who your customer is and not just have one canned paragraph you read.

    I figure it doesn’t sound that fun but after 20 or so calls i’d probably be numb to it.

    I’m a college student with a limited marketing budget (limited as in almost $0) but i’ve been doing this design stuff full time around my classes for a year or so, only had about 40K in revenue this year but with in this line of work expenses are so low that 40K for me isn’t terrible. However, October and November have been really slow and I know December is going to be slow, I just can’t afford to sit back and not do any marketing. All of my business has been referral thus so what do you think I should do?

    Do you think its worth buying a list of 500 targeted names from a site like InfoUsa for $300 and then sending them letters / calling them?

    Thanks a lot.

  • pdxi


    It will probably best in your scenario to build the list yourself. You’re not going to spend a cent and you also have the opportunity to learn about your propsects’ businesses.

    Remember, bad sales calls are made by salesmen who don’t know their prospects.

  • Lira

    Hehe, harsh.

    It could be worse though – companies here just play recorded messages, which is even more annoying, because you can’t talk to a record and the sound is often distorted, making you wonder what they’re talking about.

    Anyway, I guess the best call I’ve ever received in a similar circunstance was from a Baptist church near my house. The guy was very polite, trying to be my friend rather than trying to get me convinced. He then told me about some meetings, asked me whether I was a Christian (to which I replied “No”) and told me that, if I ever felt like it, I could show up even if I were a convict atheist. He then asked me whether he could pray for me just for half a minute, and being such little time, I said yes.

    Although I didn’t convert to Christianism, at least now I have a positive view toward his Church. If it were a company rather than a church, I’d be inclined to by their products.

  • bcm


    I know what you are saying, it is just figuring out how to know who to contact in the businesses that is the hardest part. I could easily just go through the yellow pages and make calls but then you don’t know the name of the business owner, you have to ask for something like “office manager” or “business owner” and then people know you’re just making a sales call.

    The thing about InfoUSA is you get the business name / number but more important the business owners name so then you have someone to ask for. Plus I figure if I googled the business i could learn something about them at least (if they have a site, etc).

    It’s a tough game…no one really likes receiving sales calls but my general ideology is if .5 percent of 1,000 (5 people) decide to have my company build them a website it is worth the time / aggravation. 5 web projects per month would be very profitable for us…I know 5 doesn’t seem like a lot of projects but we’re a really small business and those 5 projects per month would net us at least 5-10K+ per month. Like I said, I’m still in college so if my business is doing 10K a month I’d be very pleased.

    I know a lot of profitable web design firms like APlus.net and Webxites.com rely heavily on telemarketing, so it must be working for someone.

    Any one out there ever have any success with it? What kind of conversion rates have you seen? (sales/calls)


  • WDM

    I recently sent letters out to a bunch of referrals from one of our clients and then followed it up with a phone call about a week later. Out of 9 calls I got 3 meetings and 1 request for more information. The big thing was they knew the person who had referred them to me well and mentioning their name seemed to play a big part in getting the business owners to take my call.

    Largely those I got meetings with were already actively thinking about web development. Those who had never really thought about it because there is a national brand name website had a good chat with me but in the end declined to go further.

    I’m now quickly writing an article for a national trade magazine for their industry regarding how relying on the national brand name website is hurting their business.

    In the end I hate cold calling and would never even bother without the referral and a letter first. The one mistake I did make was to not offer to send those who declined to meet some sort of free educational material we have developed.

  • Anything

    I happen to work for a company where 95% of their sales are from cold calling, it works. They sell an online only product. Those “stupid, one-shot sales calls” bring in about 3 million in revenue on a product with huge margins.

    Yes they are annoying but if you make enough calls you will get the sales. With cold calling you should expect 1-5% closing rate (depends on the sales person,product, quality of call list, target market)

    Are there better ways of doing it? Maybe, depends on the product and the market you are trying to sell to. The only way to tell is to test different methods for your product.

    Making a blanket statment of don’t make one-shot cold calls is stupid.

  • WDM

    It certainly does depend on the situation your business is in. I was referring to my position and how I feel about it, not everyone else. That was the part where I used “I” a lot.

    I don’t have the time nor the inclination to make 100’s of calls. I also target a neich market and am not selling a product but a service that takes a good deal of trust before someone will take the leap.

    In the context of a smaller web developer offering a service, and in my experience, one shot cold calls don’t achieve much. Your experience may vary.

  • Very interesting what you said about webxcites and Andrews post. Webxcites is based in Houston and has had tremendous success.


    However, I just found an interesting blog with parallels to Andrew’s post.


  • bcm

    Yea I first read about webxites.com in Entrepreneur Magazine but I guess they’ve done quite well, they were founded with a 200K investment and did something like 8.5M in revenue last year…

    They basically put your company on overture, you pay them between $149 and $499 a month (depending on where you want to be in the rankings) and then you don’t pay anything per click.

    I’ve done a decent amount of studying of the business model, expenses seem like they’d be up there and the potential for loss on a customer (especially one with competive keywords) is defenitley there, but high monthly billings are great. I’d love to have even 20 customers paying me $500 a month. It just seems like a tough sell to me.

    They don’t really design web sites, they just have a bunch of templates and then you go in and input the content your self. They are more of a hybrid of a hosting/ppc firm than a design firm.

  • bcm

    actually I think I spoke too soon…apparently they’ve changed the company around…new web site and new service descriptions..seems like they are leaning more towards custom solutions these days.

  • pdxi

    Andrew, or “Master Neitlich”,

    I’m curious to hear your take on how to do a sales call.

    I’ve considered doing my own cold-call/letter/postcard/email/carrier pigeon campaigns, but being the eternal perfectionist (and also not a good writer), I haven’t moved forward on any such plans.

    Do you think it’s feasible for a small operation to build their own marketing lists by hand (using the yellow pages, google, and common knowledge in combination) and market to the individuals on the list?

    Of course it’s feasible, but I think some people here could benefit from hearing a practical example of this idea at work. Do you have any stories relating to this? Any recommendations for people trying this out for the first time?

    I know that such an article could be thousands of words long, but a little “pep talk” could serve the congregation well :)

    Best regards,

  • aneitlich


    I do have some examples and recommendations for first timers. That will be a good one for the next blog post.

    If you are a perfectionist, I assure you that you will not like what I tell you next time!



  • Anonymous

    Trial and error pdxi. We are actually preparing for a 150 person mail/call/e-mail campaign in one of our target markets.

  • Dr Livingston

    You are right on the point of the introductory letter… You need to let yourself be known first, and let the – possibly – interested party gain some insight into what you are offering.

    Ie They tend to do some background on you first. If you are online with a website, this is where first impressions matter in my view.

    As for cold calling, I basically tell me to f*** *** and put the phone down. Got no time for people like that. Its annoying.

  • Anything

    Yes people that are into design/hosting/e marketing are like you and me and would just hand up…

    but you have to realize that many people don’t know much about current web technology and they are willing to listen to a cold call if it gives them some information.

  • bcm

    InfoUsa.com offers a good tool called Sales Genie, basically they charge $250 a month, but they give you a free trial where you can access all the business contact information (name, address, owners name + number, sales volume, industry, web site (if they have one)). I pulled about 100 names out of it last night and I think i’m going to try and make some cold calls this afternoon.

    I’ll post here and let you know what kind of success rate I had.

  • bcm, if you want some truely useful leads, then look to the people you’ve already done work for. Ask them for referrals, maybe even give them something in return for referring you on. That’s money better spent, because it comes with a personal recommendation if they introduce you to the lead (I think Andrew refers to it as “warm calling”), and has a higher conversion rate. Worst case they all say no, and you’re where you are at the moment, but at least start with the ones that are more of a sure thing than just calling people out of the blue. Remember you still need to research the people/market/industry that you are about to call anyway, at least you’ve already done those hard yards with your previous clientele list.

  • mjc

    mrsmiley, VERY good advice. The only downside I could see with this is if bcm is totally green as a telephone salesperson (which may be the case).

    If this IS a case a few cold calls first to “practice” might be a good idea rather than risk blowing a warm lead.

    Send an introductory letter first including basic information and promising a follow up phonecall.

    Script the call, by this I don’t mean do a robo-call but rather have a list of points you want to get across – including offers to send more info, have a meeting etc.

    NEVER lose your cool, any bad call you make now is infinitely harder to turn around later and people talk so some warm leads could go cold on you…

    Definitely offer something to your existing customers if they recommend someone who buys from you. Try & make the offer valuable to them but cheap to you e.g. $250 off your next invoice (which is free unless there’s a next invoice & it’s only your time if you do have to “pay out”) Make it conditional on you getting paid for a certain amount of work – that way your existing customer has a stake in your credit control – always good.

    There’s other telesales stuff like keeping your voice high energy & using good microphone technique, it’s an art. I did it years ago as a fill in job & I therefore have exceptionally low tolerence for poor quality telesales :)

  • Great post. Interestingly enough Business 2.0 magazine has an article on “Firing Up Your Cold Calls“.

  • bcm

    Good article type0.

  • Anonymously

    Good article type0.

    “Ask someone in your office to give a speech to colleagues, and he might get the jitters. But dare him to pick up the phone and pitch a business deal to a total stranger, and he’ll probably go into hiding.”

    And funny too… ;)

  • Hi, all, I just have to jump into this discussion! Before I was a Web designer I was in sales for 5 years. My mentors in that field taught me to state my name and my purpose in calling at the very beginning of a cold call. Then the very next thing I’d say was “do you have some time to talk now or should I call back next Tuesday (or whenever)?” You never just ask “Can you talk now?” because of course they’ll say no to get rid of you. But you always use the “talk now or later” question to show you respect the value of their time.

    I’ve sold stuff to people who were cold calls originally, and so has every good sales rep I ever knew. It is generally considered good practice not to attempt to close a sale on the first call, you just chat with the prospect and find out about their needs. Of course, if you stumble across a red-hot prospect who needs exactly what you have yesterday, then go for the gold.

    While I wouldn’t call it easy, cold calling need not be terrifying or unpleasant. Keep in mind you can’t sell to everybody you call, just cherry-pick the really good ones to follow up with.

    Andrew, your story about the inept sales rep who called you reminds of the Sales Managers’ Hiring Principle: Hire 5, keep 2. Sounds like your guy will be, if he isn’t already, one of the rejected 3.

    Anything, where you say, “With cold calling you should expect 1-5% closing rate,” are you talking about closing on the first call? There are some sales people who can do that with some products and services, but it’s unusual to get even that high a yield ratio on a cold call. On the other hand, if that is the closing rate overall for your company’s reps, and they’re still working there, maybe I should apply. I was usually expected to have a close ratio of between 10 – 20% overall (counting all types of sales, including cold calls.)

    Well, I do ramble on, but you really pushed my buttons on this one!

  • bcm, I just re-read your question (“Do you think its worth buying a list of 500 targeted names from a site like InfoUsa for $300 and then sending them letters / calling them?”) and I gotta say, don’t waste your money. I don’t know anything about InfoUsa, maybe they’re a great company with a great service. Let’s assume for the sake of argument they are. I still wouldn’t spend 300 of your hard-earned dollars on a list from them.

    Where do you suppose companies like that get their lists? Some call companies from the Dun and Bradstreet lists or from the phone book. They get the names of decision makers and whatever else information they can glean. I suppose it’s also possible to get lists from sources such as trade show attendees, people in professional organizations, and so on. My company does licensure testing for occupations like insurance and real estate, and we get periodic requests for lists of names of people who recently passed the tests. The inquirer either wants to recruit new hires or sell services or products to them. All this is entirely legitimate, but the problem is by the time such lists are turned around to be resold, much of the information on them is obsolete.

    Some years ago when I worked in telemarketing we had a project to update a list based on the D&B information. I called one company and asked for the president as named in the D&B entry. There was a brief pause, and then the receptionist said, “He’s been dead for 15 years.”

    I think WDM and pxdi have it right – essentially, you must build your own list. Do you have an email newsletter on your site? If you can get site visitors to sign up you have the beginning of a good, pre-qualified list. They wouldn’t sign up for your mailings if they weren’t interested in your services. I highly recommend http://www.clickz.com‘s articles on email marketing. They have a long list of columns called colletively “E-mail 101” at http://www.clickz.com/resources/email_reference/getting_started/
    You might want to check it out.

  • Anonymously

    @ Jenny McDermott

    Nice comments…

    I agree – based on my experience using InfoUSA, DnB, and others I agree that that data is old. The value of these companies comes when you are buying 50k plus in contacts. This being said, people reading this are likely from or are small shops and the most value will come from building you own list.

    All you need is a list of 10 people – after your done contacting them one time find 10 more… KEEP IT SIMPLE.

  • We are actually preparing for a 150 person mail/call/e-mail campaign in one of our target markets.

    Anonymous, would you be into keeping us updated as to how that project goes? I’d be very interested in hearing about it.

  • audiopleb

    For cold calling it is playing the averages game, for every 100 calls they might make three idiots beleive them, as they generally charge silly money for their services it’s a win win situation. They dont really inderstand that they could get more clients by researching their call more. I suppose they must weigh up time calling against idiots signed up. I’m sure the maths makes sense somewhere. Maybe. Possibly.

  • I had a similar experience just a couple of weeks ago. Sounded like an Indian chap, opened up with the old “how are you” and then proceed to pollute my ears with some spiel he was obviosly reading from and idiot sheet.

    Before he got too far into it, I just interrupted him with my old favourite:

    “You’ve got exactly 10 seconds to explain clearly what it is that you’re flogging. If you fail, I will hang up and you will not contact me again.”

    Needless to say, he failed. And he didn’t call back again.

  • Those of you thinking of buying lists of names might consider this: regardless of the currency of the data, if you don’t know anything about the business you are calling, how can you expect to provide a service “built” for that business. Case in point, my business is mainly retail of hard products. I have a simplistic web site mainly as a business card/brochure distribution point. An individual sent me a direct mail brochure about his web site design services and then followed with a phone call … information easily gleaned from my state’s business records.

    When he started trying to explain what a web site was and why it was a better investment than Yellow Page advertising. I don’t have a Yellow Page ad .. easy to find out. I told him I already had a web site .. his response, a bit peeved already was, “Well how could I have known that?”

    My response, “A little thing called Google, perhaps, or do you need me to spell it for you”?

    He hung up on me. Who’s time and expense did he waste by just taking a list of names and calling? A lot more of his time than he did of mine.

  • Mike Barns

    Just a guy trying to do his job, I’m sure he doesn’t want to talk to you anymore than you want to hear him but everyone has to make a living.

    Good move being a prick though…..I’m sure everyone will now agree that you’re super cool.

  • Gene McCubbin

    I was monkeying around on Google, chasing down the links to see what the world had to say about Webxites…and discovered this forum. You guys all make interesting points. Several of you seem rhetorically interested in or at least curious about phone sales. As one of you accurately stated, we did millions of dollars in revenues reaching out to customers via the telephone. I am happy to help out or provide any of you who are fledgling entrepreneurs the Ups and Downs of phone sales. Just let me know. I am more easily reached vie email, as I don’t know how often I’ll check this post. Regardless, good luck on your future endeavors. – gene mccubbin, president, Webxites

  • Sales123

    Cold Calls do work… You just don’t know how to sell on the phone.
    =====D ~o ~0 ~O (|)

  • JEM

    Why buy list if you have a library card … Log on to Reference USA
    and build your own list, then Google your research prior to your 1st call. Don’t call to chat, have something new to offer/discuss on every call. Good Luck

  • 6figurePhonePro

    Ummm, I’m responding to the masses up there ^^. Hopefully I can provide Entrepreneurs with some practical phone sales knowledge. Strap on your helmet and bang out 150 numbers a day. Cliche: “It’s a numbers game.” Who cares about a list, just pick up the nearest phone book and stretch your fingers. Don’t think about a game plan, think ON YOUR FEET. It’s a total waste of your time to consider a business plan before dialing your market. The AVERAGE sales person has serious phone anxiety. Anything that you do to distract youself from doing actual phone work is nothing more than procrastination. Improvise your marketing plan as you dial. The prospects know more about your business than you do. You are not only learning how to sell your proposition and overcome rejection, but they (prospects) are feeding you with information about your industry that you weren’t aware of. This is the most methodical approach considering that you are learning and trying to understand the behaviors of your industry prospects. Meanwhile, you are polishing your phone sales skills and simultaneously marketing your business. Do you understand the collective needs of your prospective customers? Do you listen to your customer’s REAL needs or concerns? Do you talk more than the prospect? Do you ask meaningful questions pertaining to the issue being discussed? These are rhetorical questions BTW, always let your prospect speak more than you do “Tele Guru.” 36,000 numbers a year will make you a pro on the phone with time. Good luck~!

    • SayYes2ColdCalls

      Agreed. Experience is the best teacher. I used to try and perfect a plan, figure out exactly what to say, find the “right” customers to call. Just get on the phone and call. You can make it fun. Nothing bad can really happen. They can’t hit you through the phone or anything. They may call you an idiot as the author did, but they are the idiot. Move on. Just make sure you stay excited.

  • Russdesign

    I am a customer of Webxcites. They have a really good product and have made a very nice and functional website for me. My business has very definately been improved by using their service. BUT… They are very slow with service and seem to have no problem lying to customers about issues being handled and then not doing it. I am quite frustrated with them at this time because of the lousy service. Time will tell.


  • Resa

    Despite all of the good (and bad) advice from this posting, I ask “who is your target market?” Is the receiver of your call really within your target market group or some random individual you hope will purchase your product or service? Knowing your target market group then you will have a greater success on your “cold calls”.

  • 6figurePhonePro

    Resa? Know your target market? Ummmmm, affirmative and correctOmundo. That’s pretty much a no brainer for most of the people who have posted on here. “Do you know your blog audience?” Do you stop at red lights? These are Entrepreneurs looking for phone sales advice, not special ed children trying to find a way to the bus stop blind folded. If they happen to call the wrong prospect… in all likelyhood, they will figure it out lol. Resa ^^ “Knowing your target market group then you will have greater success on your “cold calls”. Thanks, why not tell everyone to floss because it’s good oral hygeine while you’re at it? Everyone know’s that you have to focus on your target market to get results. Give some phone advice Resa, or do you not have any? Cold calling isn’t for the weak… ;)

  • Anonymous

    At my place of work we get no lists, nothing. A phone book or “driving around and looking” is what I do to get ideas for potential prospects. I think that if I had lists it would make my life 120% easier. You CAN make lists but it takes forever.

    Another idea is to type the words “President” and “TOWN YOU LIVE IN” into google to get names of Presidents of companies to call – that way you avoid getting ditched by the receptionist because you’ve asked for the President by name – always ask for them by first name – that way you sound like a friend.

    Receptionists to me are the hardest part of the cold call – it’s like a game – I want to get through and they want to stop me – so I’ve become quite creative.

  • 6FigurePhonePro

    Try using Hoovers or Jigsaw, even if you’re working with a limited budget you can get an account with Jigsaw and trade out names to get new ones. When asking for the President of any Company, ask for the executive offices of whom ever the Presidents name is. Identify yourself with the Secretary and ask to speak with the person who handles whatever Dept. The gate keeper is exactly that, they are trained to not let you speak with the head honcho. You can befriend a receptionist with many tactics and it is strongly recommended. A gate keeper is not your enemy, they just have a job to do. Tell them that you thought their voice was a recording and they should be doing voice over work for commercials. That will get a giggle out of the 8 buck an hour kids most of the time. Getting past the gate keeper is the easy part. Press for an ext. to someone else and then talk to that person to get you through. Spell out a name in the dial by name directory, (Smith usually works well) then tell them you pressed the wrong ext. and you were trying to reach “Your Buyer”. The bottom line is if you want to get the person you want on the phone you can do it, be determined. “Let me speak to Bob Smith, and yes, it’s urgent. Decision Makers field tons of calls from Vendors each day, distinguish yourself.

  • Kevin Juntunen

    Sounds to me that the “Sales Rep” was just a crappy sales rep. He didn’t even ask you if you were at your desk!

    How can you sell SEO/SEM without the prospect at his computer?

    This article and my response is a waste of time. I wasted almost 2 minutes! Damn it!

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