• During the week I came across an interesting point that it now takes a telemarketing company an average of 35 calls to get through to a meaningful prospect. Five years ago it was 4.

      Outbound telemarketing is rapidly becoming the least admired form of customer engagement, yet on a debate on Linked in this week over 150 people have argued in favour of driving sales people to do it, even though the evidence is that it’s not producing the numbers.

      The discussion – to which I have contributed the piece below, reminded me of my own early days way back when I started out in my media career selling recruitment classifieds for a national newspaper.

      The way we were all taught was very formulaic – we called it the Thomson Method, and it was built around cold calling, but door to door.  We were all sent out every morning to over our ‘patch’ and had a fixed calling cycle so that every day we knew – as did the boss — where we were going to be, even though 99 times out of 100 we wouldn’t have any fixed appointments.

      Because it was a daily newspaper we were expected to be back in the office by 4.00pm, having made at least four face to face calls, and brought back two sales. At that time we’d hit the phones and fill the space left for the next day’s paper.

      They had stuck with the same method religiously for years because it had worked, and everyone in management had come up through the company, so was trained in that way of thinking.

      Before joining the newspaper  I had just spent over a year selling Radio advertising, which at the time was still seen as ‘not mainstream,’ so we had employed far more creative and effective methods. There was one memorable campaign brought in by one of my colleagues who having failed to convince the media buyer, ended up challenging him to a game of Spoof for the business, and winning it!

      The media buyer then used all the arguments that he himself had dismissed just ten minutes earlier, to convince the client of the rightness of the decision!

      However, on this long-establidhed national paper, such methods would have resulted in summary dismissal. So even though I appreciated learning about structure, organisation and controlling the sale, trudging around in my first week, which was on-the-job training being shown the ropes by the sales manager, I was horrified at the thought that these poor customers had been forced to listen to a succession of green, young reps reciting this dreary dirge.

      Thirty years on I can still remember, and slightly shudder at, the way we were taught to engage the customer:

      Walk up to reception. Smile at the receptionist and ask to be put through to the prospect. Do not give anything other than your name.

      Then when the receptionist is struggling to introduce you, ask if you can speak to the prospect and reach out for the phone.

      When the phone is passed over to you, smile into the phone and in a confident but not commanding manner say the following:”Good morning/afternoon , Mr./Ms. Prospect. There are two reasons I’ve come to see you today. One is to show you how to recruit a better candidate, the other to reduce the cost of doing so. Now shall I come up and see you in your office, or would you like to come down and meet me here in reception?”

      We still get the odd call like that today, and I am wryly amused when I pick it up because at least the guy has been given some training, but despite having enjoyed terrific success selling Radio, including bringing in a campaign that still runs today, I just found this method failed wholly to engage.

      Even worse was that the objection handling approach was so bombastic it was more likely to alienate the prospect.

      After a month of using their method, and admittedly generating the required two ads per day, I still found it really uncomfortable to use this approach, even though there was definitely an opportuity for the publication to grow its sales in the patch I’d inherited.

      So it was time to step back and look at it with a marketeer’s eye.

      The paper’s method of identifying sales prospects was to go through that days’ competitors and call up the advertisers. So we had an almighty stack of back issues, which came home with me over one weekend.

      Three months’ worth of back issues yielded a mine of information about who advertised most regularly, which types of jobs and in which papers, and after a long weekend  yours truly had a detailed map of the advertisers in my patch – some of whom we didn’t even have records of, but which formed an excellent basis for a calling plan.

      The approach – while still cold – was markedly different.

      Instead of trying to browbeat them into an immediate sale, I’d approach the receptionist and tell him – in those days a good three-quartesr of them were ‘him’ and many were uniformed commissionaires who had been NCOs in the army.  If they were in uniform, I’d greet them by their military rank – which always went down well, and invariably we’d have a short and friendly chat about where they had served, and how civvy street wasn’t a patch on the forces. These details were always noted in the customer file, so the next time I went in I’d have a tidbit to share or a question about the wife’s lumbago, another friendly chat then ensued.

      Having created that bond, I’d then ask them if they could help me out  by calling up the prospect and explaining that I was passing and had called in hopefully to see if I could make an appointment to talk to them about reducing the cost of their recruitment ads. About half of the prospects would happily fix a meeting for the next time I was passing, the majority of the rest would come down and see me immediately without me having to rip the phone out of a grudging old soldier’s hand.

      The next stage was to go through the history of their ads in the competing titles and show how for certain specific job types, we could get better quality of response. This led on to setting up a plan that allowed them to come to us first and benefit from a discount in return for committing to a certain level of business.

      To anyone in management today this sounds like common sense, but of course I wasn’t allowed to discount, being just a humble ad rep, and the manager would have had kittens if I’d suggested it, but I’d watched the more experienced guys slashing rates by 60-70% after 4.30 just to get an ad away, so knew that by working the system in the customer’s favour with about half their ads booked after the discount watershed at 4.30 pm,  we could get the business at a good price and keep the customer coming back for more.

      Because they were advertising jobs, they usually knew two or three weeks before the ad was due to place, so we’d work out a plan for the coming month, book about half of them in advance, and I’d know to call on certain days, or they’d call the office and leave a message for me to call them back, which I’d do after 4,30, agree a discount with the boss, and bring the ad home.

      It didn’t hammer the rate card one bit –  my overall discount worked out at less than 20% against rate card.

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, after three months this lead to me hitting top salesman seven months in a row.

      Fortunately for me the sales manager was off sick for six of those months and recuperating for a further two, and as I was hitting top numbers the sales director left me to get on with it.

      However it all came horribly unstuck when the sales manager got back into the saddle and came out with me one day!

      He was horrified, and told me this had to stop – “Do it our way or not at all’ was his approach.

      I explained that my way was to treat every customer as a key account and that I had quadrupled the revenue and volume off the patch, so it obviously worked.

      Sadly, despite the evidence of both volume and yield, he would not be swayed and told me in no uncertain terms that (a) I wasn’t experienced enough to handle that level of deal, (b) I had grossly exceeded my authority – even though every single discount was individually signed off by management, and (c) I could be subject to disciplinary proceedings for breaking the rules.

      So, in one of those life-changing moments I politely handed in my notice on the spot, together with the keys of the company car, and got the next train home!

      Now I’m older and wiser, and come across similarly entrenched management attitudes, especially when it comes to cold calling and telemarketing, but I find that you have to look more carefully to get the whole story.

      On the one hand my approach worked in building sales, and I’ll always start by looking at the way the sales team is managed, motivated, trained and resourced to find reasons for failure. But on the other, it posed too much of a threat to the established management approach, and like so many sales people who are focused on today’s targets, they didn’t have the luxury of time, or the vision, to consider a better and more long-term sustainable route to build business.

      It was also a valuable lesson, because all my team have been at the sharp end, which means we’ve walked the walk, rather than just studied the theory, so when we work with companies to grow sales through helping them to become more creative, flexible and  customer-focused, we have a much better handle on whether or not the customers will respond well and how to integrate a fresh approach into established thinking.

      And the lesson for all of us? Listen to your people – they often know your customers far better than you do, and if they tell you something’s not working look for a different approach – don’t just fire the messenger