Optimizing your customer development cold calls

Cold calling is one of the best ways to get in touch with potential customers when starting a B2B startup. It’s inexpensive and the chance to speak directly to the target means that you can glean much more information from a call then you can with an email or other contact.

When you do a lot of cold calls, you quickly begin to see recurring patterns in the way that the calls proceed. It’s important to continuously work on your opens so that over time you learn to maximize the value derived from each call.

In this post I’m going to outline the general strategy I use for opening customer development cold calls and go through a specific example from some calls I did for a startup idea I’m working on.


Usually, if the prospect is going to cut you off, they’re going to do it within the first few sentences.

person getting hung up on by angry prospect

That means that the way you open the call can be the difference between gaining valuable information for your business and looking up another phone number.

A good opening strategy involves conveying who you are and why you’re calling in a clear and concise manner. Once you’ve gotten that information across you need to provide the prospect with a natural way to move into the main body of the conversation.

1) Who we are
Who you are consists of your name and your company or position. This is one area where early stage startup cold calling is different than sales calls in an established enterprise. They likely wont have heard of your companies name (hell, you might not have one yet) so mentioning it doesn’t provide much credibility. For this reason I often try to connect in a different way. For example, if you’re based in the same city as the prospect, mention that fact along with telling them your profession. People like to support small business in their local area.

2) Why we’re calling
During the customer development phase of a startup, we have one important fact working in our favor: we don’t have much of a product yet so technically we’re not selling anything. Lets face it, people generally don’t like to be interrupted in work and sold to. Even if you’re not planning on going all out Glengarry Glen Ross (and you definitely shouldn’t be), they may be expecting that you are. It helps to establish the fact that you’re not selling anything by telling them and giving them a different explanation for your call.

3) How long the call will take (hint: not long)
Its important to establish up front that the call wont take long. Otherwise they may start fearing the worst and cut you off before you can get started. Let them know that you’re not looking to deliver an epic monologue, just ask a few simple questions.

4) The opening question
Once those points are across, we need get permission to continue the call. This lets the target know that we appreciate their time. When I first started making cold calls I was doing this in a really straight forward way, simply asking if they could spare a couple of minutes to talk to me. I now believe that was a mistake. Outright asking for their time is front-loading the conversation too much. It sounds like a large commitment in the prospects mind and too often triggers a rejection.

I think that a better way is to ask them a question. This offers them a clear opportunity to end the call if they really want to (they command the conversation once you ask them something) but also takes the blunt edge off getting permission to continue.

The type of question is immensely important. It should be a question which is tailored to help them to get into a comfortable flow of talking about their business and how it operates. It must be open ended enough that it cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. At the same time it must not be so open ended that it would take all day for the prospect to explain (that will make them want to get off the line pronto, there’s business to attend to).

I find that a decent tactic is to ask them to explain the steps involved in one specific aspect of their day to day work. For example, if you’re calling real estate agents, ask them what’s involved in adding a new property to their books when a person who is looking to sell comes into their shop.

5) The body of the call
Once you’ve asked the opening question, you’ve hopefully got them talking and moved into the main body of the call. It’s impossible to write a detailed script for this part because you need to work off the answer they give to the opening question.

That said, you can certainly plan the body to a certain extent. You should have a large list of questions and topics you want to cover on front of you so that you can always ask something new if the conversation starts to die out.

Example breakdown

Recently I made a lot of cold calls for an idea I’m working on called PrintBelt. Just to provide some context, the product is a management information system (MIS) for small printing companies. That means that my prospects are printing companies with 2 — 8 employees.

I opened with the line ”Hi. My name is David Tuite and I’m a software developer from Dublin”. This quickly tells the prospect my name and role. It also lets them know that I’m local. This is important since here in Ireland we’re constantly being bombarded with tv and print media ads encouraging us to support local business. It instantly establishes a connection between myself and the prospect (who is also in Dublin).

I pause for a second once I’ve told them who I am. This gives them a chance to respond. Usually they’ll just say “OK” or something to that affect but that word is more important than you might suspect. Firstly it gives you a chance to judge their mood. You can often hear either intrigue or suspicion in their voice. Secondly it establishes that this is going to be a two way communicative experience. You’re not calling up to just rattle off a long tirade of a sales pitch in their ear.

Next I like to play the customer development trump card by saying ”Now, I’m not actually trying to sell you anything…”. You may get a laugh if you say it in a playful manner which empathizes with the pain they feel when sales people call and you’re usually golden if you do. Either way, this line should help to relax the prospect a little and make them more responsive.

At this point I need to establish why I’m calling so I usually continued with ”but I’m thinking of developing some job management software for the printing industry and I’m trying to do some research”. Word choice can be very important in this line. I had to experiment a little with variations of “job management” before I hit on something that they all seemed to understand. I could almost hear some peoples eyes glaze over when I said “MIS software”.

If I feel they need some more prompting I might say **”Now I’m only looking for a few minutes of your time because I know you’re busy”. This establishes that the conversation won’t take long and that I appreciate their time.

Then I ask my opening question: “I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about the process that happens when someone calls up and orders a printing job”. I like this question because it’s a specific question about a part of their workflow that they likely know well. The other good thing about it is that the ordering of a print job happens at the start of the total printing workflow. That means that if they answer this first question, talking about the rest of the workflow is a natural progression. Mentioning that I want them to tell me a “little bit” reinforces the idea that the call won’t take all day.

At this point they’ll either start talking (yay!) or offer a nicety and end the call (boo!). Regardless, your job of opening the call is now complete. Congratulations!

Common response scenarios

Too busy right now

prospect telling caller he’s too busy while Facebook is open on the screen

You often get people telling you that they’re too busy to speak to you. The correct response is to simply ask them when might be a more suitable time to call. They’ll usually tell you another day or time and you can just thank them, hang up and try again at the given time. If they give you this response every time you try to call them the just flag them as unresponsive and move on. They’re not interested and there’s not much point wasting time.

The person you need isn’t in at the moment

target telling secretary to pretend he’s not in

This case is also pretty easy to handle. If they offer you an estimate of when said person will be back then just wait and call them back later in the day. Make sure you leave a gap between the scheduled return time and the actual time you call. If they don’t volunteer a time, just ask them if they might be able to tell you when the best time to call back would be.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is a customer development call and you should be looking to talk to anyone and everyone in the establishment. The person dealing with you is likely a receptionist or secretary of some description. These people can be mines of information. I like to have a secondary opening question lined up for them just incase I can’t get through to the owner or manager. For example, in print shops the receptionist often takes email orders from customers and knows that part of the process intimately. I could ask them what they do with those orders and who they pass them onto.


Remember that the strategies I present here are not set-in-stone. They key to successful calls is to keep experimenting with different ideas until you find something which works really well in your specific situation and industry.

This was originally posted on my blog: Optimizing your customer development cold calls. Credit goes to Colm Tuite for making the amazing images.

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