I have been in the direct B2B sales industry for nearly 20 years now. I started out as a naïve rookie in this business 20 years ago working for what has become the leading Retail Customer Analytics companies in the US. I was given no territory, no potential customer list, no leads to follow up on and no direction. While I had 25 years of retail management experience, I quickly found out that held no water in the B2B selling business. I was given a desk in the open office, but quickly moved to a table in the back room because there was so much noise and commotion in the open office I could not even hear when the phone rang.
While in the retail business, I worked for a company that had a culture where every phone call was to be returned before you left the office that day. And, since it was the only company I had worked for in my adult life, I figured every company worked that exact way. So, I dug around the office and found an old data base of all of the retail and restaurant companies in the US. Since I was in Texas, I sorted out all of the retail and restaurant chains that were in Texas. I figured that they may have at least heard of us. There were phone numbers in the database, so I thought I was off to the races. Well, in the next three weeks I learned two very important lessons. First, not all of the phone numbers in any database are going to be correct. Secondly, and probably more importantly, I learned that not all retailers return phone calls.
Now, the first revelation was not such a big surprise. But the second surprise was a real shock to my system. Here I was a veteran retailer, one that had held significant positions with one of the most successful retail companies in the US and retail leaders did not return my call. It did not register with me. I could understand if they had met me and did not like me, but these were people that had never heard of me. Were they crazy? I had a solution to their rapid store deployment problem and they were not calling me back.
And then I learned an even more shocking lesson. If I actually got through to a company, many of them had "Gate Keepers" to keep me away from the decision makers. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Gate Keeper. We never had them, we spoke to everyone. But companies had apparently hired people whose only job was to keep people like me, who wanted to honestly help their company continue their success, away from decision makers. Why would they do that? It made me wonder if they also hired people to keep customers away from the inside of their stores so they stayed neat and clean all day.
So, after three weeks on the job I told myself I had a problem. I had a Rolodex of one person in one retail organization that I could call. I had not received one call back from any of the 50 companies I had called in the previous three weeks. And it was not just a job for me; I was working for my best friend and I did not want to fail him as he was counting on me. Waiting around for the phone to ring was not productive- plus I'm not a sit around and wait type of guy. So I decided to stop Cold Calling altogether. It was a waste of time. Everyone else was right and I was wrong. No one responds to cold calls.
So I got that decision off my plate. And, the execution went flawlessly. I just stopped picking up the phone to make calls. I had seen others take this approach and they seemed freed from their burden of pretending to make calls. And now that I had lots of time on my hand I could learn what everyone else was doing to generate business. What I learned was shocking. They were simply waiting for the business to come to them. Could that be the answer?
Well, I waited for an entire day, sitting at my desk, getting up to annoy others sitting at their desk, and drinking lots of Diet Coke. I was exhausted. There had to be a better answer. If making cold calls was a waste of time, and waiting for the phone to ring was not only a waste of my time but forced me into bothering other people, I had to come up with a better answer.
I could call up my friends but, as I stated earlier I only had one friend. What would I do with the other 364 days of the year. Even if they purchased a lot from me I would be bored out of my mind. And, as my mom said “Idle hands are the devils workshop” and that was absolutely true with me.
After the beginning of the second day the light bulb went off. Literally, the lights in the back room went off. But it got me to thinking, why not make calls that were not cold? Since this was before Facebook and before LinkedIn (yes my younger friends, there were times before these all knowing depository of wisdom) I had to use my knowledge of the few people I knew in the business world. As Tandy was starting to break apart at this point in my career, I made it a point to find out when people were let go. I would drop them a note to offer my help in any way I could help them. They would always get back to me when they were looking for a job. Here was the answer. Build a network when people needed help not when they had all of the answers. So, off I went. Every time I found out a person had left a company I immediately reached out to them. (Not as easy as it sounds because their former company would not tell you where they went…got to love what lawyers and lawsuits have done to business). I got them to send me a resume and chatted about what their perfect job would be. Then I would sit and think about who I knew, or who I knew that knew someone that could help out my new friend. Surprise of a lifetime, but this really worked. People are more responsive to you when you are working to help them when there is nothing in it for you.
After these people landed a job I reached out to congratulate them, even if I had not helped them at all. They also always took my call. Every three months I took just a second to drop them a note to see how the new job was and what they were learning. Pretty soon we had a business “friendship” where they were always taking my call. If I saw an opportunity that fit their skill set I would always send it their way. Why not, it did not cost me anything.
Now, I must tell you that I also started cold calling again. I learned that to get someone to pick up the phone you have to call 7 times on average. I also learned that most people stop at two. As I have never considered myself most people I came up with my own program. I called it Pleasantly Persistent. I began to fully understand this calling job. I determined that it was not the job of the customer to return my call (it was nice when it happened) but it was my job to talk with them. So if I was always pleasant, and never took it personally, I was always going to be happy when I got to talk with a client.
So, in my case one (making lots of new business friends that lead to appointments) plus one (continue to cold call with a Pleasantly Persistent mentality) ended up equaling a great career in B2B sales. I became president of our division and our company became the largest retail customer analytics company in the US serving more than 400 clients.
I would suggest that for most of you that don’t have your heart into cold calling, you just simply need to stop doing it. It is more than just a waste of time and it pulls down the energy you are spending on other parts of your job. Find other ways to meet people, but make sure you work at them. And if you cannot do that then you should find a different profession. Because professional sales people are always well paid.
To learn more about how Rich Hollander gets in front of retail and restaurant professionals go to www.axcelora.com
Rich Hollander is a retail expert with over 40 years in the industry.