Five Steps to Cold Calling Success

By Ron La Vine, Founder and President, Accelerated Sales Training, Inc.

Are you having a hard time reaching decision-makers, setting up well-qualified appointments, getting past gatekeepers, gathering information or finding if you are calling on an appropriate prospect in the first place? Maybe it seems impossible to get your cold calls returned or you are getting stuck into an endless loop of voice mail. The big problem today in cold calling on businesses is that it is so hard to get a response.

It is a bad situation, but it really doesn’t have to be. This problem often stems from sales training where reps are trained to start selling BEFORE they have determined if there is a need to sell. The problem becomes further compounded when sales representatives think they are speaking with a decision-maker, but they really aren’t. They have the urge to speak about their solutions rather than to ask questions and listen to the complete answers and all of a sudden cold calling becomes really difficult.

Becoming successful at cold calling requires you to switch from the old ‘If I make enough calls, I’ll sell something’ to ‘If I speak with the person who has the authority and need to buy and if I have the right solution to fit their needs, then they will buy’ approach. This approach emphasizes finding the decision-maker(s), using exploratory questions and active listening to gather the information needed to understand who has the authority to buy, if there is a need to buy, and if so, what you should be presenting so the prospect will buy.

Step 1: Establish Call Objectives
Your first objective should be to locate what we will call the ‘WHO’ or decision-maker(s). Second, you need to determine if a need exists. Third, suggest a solution based upon the information you’ve gathered. Fourth, ask for and set up a time and date for specific action steps.

Step 2: Find the Decision-maker(s) First
Before you can find the ‘WHO’, you must first know how to work your way through the maze of a large organization. It is easy to get sidetracked by someone who says he/she has the authority to buy but doesn’t.

There are three approaches into an organization: TOP DOWN (most effective) or SIDEWAYS IN or BOTTOM UP. Whatever direction you choose, remember to seek out the ‘WHO’ first.

The easiest one of the three is the ‘top down’ approach using the power of referral from above. Cold calling goes much easier if you always start at the top of an organization and work your way down. It is much easier to work your way downstream than fight your way up stream.

On your initial call, your goal is to discover ‘WHO’ is responsible for making decisions to buy your type of solution. Start with these questions: “Maybe you can help me? Who is responsible [for your solution]?” “Do you have a [ask for the highest level title] responsible for the final decision to acquire [your solution]?”. Such as, “Do you have a CIO or a CFO?”

This isn’t the time to talk about your solution. Your goal is to find the ‘WHO’ first. A set of questions in this order will keep you out of sales mode and help you stay in information mode. These questions will diminish your fear of rejection and build your confidence since people are usually willing and able to answer them. You’ll also find people less defensive and more helpful when they don’t feel like they are being sold something.

You start by calling the headquarters receptionist and after confirming the address, ask for the name and correct spelling of the CEO (or President, etc.). Next ask to be transferred to the CEO’s assistant.

The advantage of calling the CEO’s assistant is twofold. One is they work and deal with the higher level people (C-level, VPs, etc.) and secondly when they refer you to the person they believe is the ‘WHO’, that person or their office’s gatekeeper will usually take your cold call.

The reason for this is, it is very difficult for a subordinate to refuse a call coming from a superior or a superior’s office (make sure you tell the truth and say you were referred by the CEO’s office). This fact alone eliminates many of the roadblocks such as getting return calls or being put through to the decision-makers themselves. Remember, you DO NOT want to speak with the CEO or President, you want their assistant.

When you are transferred, the first thing you need to say is that you were referred by the CEO’s office (or the CEO if you speak with them).

Using the sideways approach begins with choosing a department such as Investor or Public Relations, Purchasing or Sales. Your objective again is to find the ‘WHO’.

Finding the ‘WHO’ using the bottom up approach begins by calling on people who work in the mail room, an outlying factory, retail location, or customer service and then working your way upwards.

Remember to be flexible and continue transferring to different departments to maximize the value of each call. The objective is to find a live person who will speak with you and provide more pieces of the selling puzzle.

Starting from the top and establishing the who’s who of the organizational hierarchy eliminates a person at a lower level in the organization from saying “Don’t go above me, you deal only with me.” This is because you can mention all the names of the people above.

Step 3: Ask Permission to Speak
From a business perspective, there may be nothing more valuable than our time. Let people know that you respect their time by asking, “Is this a good time to speak?” or “Do you have a few minutes?” before using your opening statement. Not only is this a more professional approach, you’ll find people will offer their full attention since you’ve been given their permission to speak.

If it isn’t a convenient time for your prospect to talk, SCHEDULE A FOLLOW-UP CALL and then HANG UP THE PHONE. Why waste their time or yours? If they are busy, you certainly will not have their attention. Make a good impression by being polite and respectful of the other person’s time.

Step 4: Use Direct Open-Ended Questions
Start by using direct questions such as: “Who is responsible for?” or “How do you currently handle?” or “What are you doing in the area of?” or “When do you plan to make a decision on?” or “Why do you think that is?” Direct questions demonstrate you are in control of the conversation and you know what you are doing.

Avoid using weak questions or statements: “Could you possibly” or “Might you be able to tell me?” or “I’m just trying to find out some information” or “I was hoping to find out” – These type of statements imply a lack confidence.

Step 5: Summarize Your Conversation
At the end, and after any conversation involving action items, summarize verbally and in writing important points and clarify time and date specific next steps. Follow the verbal summary with a written one in an e-mail, and then call to be sure the information was received.

Use a summary email to help you move forward towards the close of a sale. This email provides a detailed summary of what you heard during the conversation, what it means and what are the next steps to be taken, by whom and by when, in order to complete the sale.

In this email include:

  • Prospect’s Company Background (describe the past and current company situations).
  • Current Challenge or Situation (list the needs, problems, pains or challenges and why they are occurring).
  • Timing (specify the evaluation completion and decision dates you have been told).
  • Evaluation Process (identify who will conduct the evaluation and the criterion that will be used).
  • Decision Process (note who will be involved in making the decision and how will they decide).
  • Budget (establish that budget has been set aside or there is access to budget).
  • The Next Step (layout of the process of who will do what and by when).
  • A Signature (include your complete contact information and a tag line explaining the benefits of your solution).

You can make cold calling easier and more effective by starting at the top and by following these steps.

      1. Establish call objectives
      2. Find the decision-maker(s) first
      3. Ask permission to speak
      4. Use direct open-ended questions
      5. Summarize your conversation


Want to remove fear and rejection from cold calling? View cold calling as an informational puzzle. Your goal is to see how many pieces of information you can get on every call. When you gather information you didn’t have before, you’ve got a result. If you’ve got result then you haven’t been rejected. This puzzle approach will allow you to maximize your valuable selling time by calling on the people who can and will buy from you.