Fish are friends, not food.

Bruce the shark – Finding Nemo

I thought of this phrase recently as I was struggling with cold-calling recently. I was looking at a particular contact record and trying to figure something out – some way to approach them. And it came to me:

Q: What sure-fire reason or rationale do you have for calling them?
A: None.

Q: OK, smart guy, then how do I maintain a prospecting cadence that will grow my business?
A: You can’t. Not this way.

This struck me as pretty inconvenient. And what’s worse, I realized around the same time that until I could answer the question in some more substantial way, I had no business calling them. What’s even worse, manufacturing a pretext, as some sales training suggests, feels slimy and everyone pretty much knows it. If you’re engaging in an activity and you get treated like a creep over and over again for doing it, that probably means the activity is creepy.

What Does Consent Mean in Prospecting?

More simply – unless you are someone who enjoys having people you’ve never heard of email you, ring you up, or show up in your lobby, why do you engage in this behavior? There isn’t a right way to do a wrong thing. Shifting to a different platform (i.e. making it a LinkedIn message instead of an email) isn’t going to change a lot. I do have some things to say later about the format or the medium that may caveat this, but it still gets back to the speed of gaining trust.

Now, there are some people who are relatively good at overcoming the implied consent issues – they seem to be good at initiating contact that may not be wanted, and which if unwanted is disturbing. Whether they charm and flatter better than average, or just physically look better than average, or have a bit of convenient sociopathy that makes their success rate 3 out of 10 instead of 1 out of 100, the fact remains that the majority of people they encounter (generally the smarter ones) don’t quite trust them.

Based on my ancient experiences of cold-calling, the real reason cold calling was once more effective without some social pretext is that prospects had fewer ways of getting information. So about 1 or 2 times out of 10, the purchasing agent I dropped in on in Birmingham, Alabama would sigh and say “OK, son, what’s new?” Because they needed to maintain contact with people like me to get product information.

Prospects don’t have to do that anymore. Interaction with human beings, as opposed to web, social, videos, etc. feels like it’s desired at a much later stage of the buying cycle. I don’t have a hard statistic on this, but I’ve heard experts estimate that 80 percent of businesses search for and find their suppliers, not the other way around.

How Do We Gain Consent in Prospecting?

Does that mean there is no way to expand your circle of influence and become known as a resource? Or does it mean that you should only do things like web and social media to try to achieve that?

Not at all. I believe that web and social, while effective as part of a strategy, is not sufficient without face-to-face contacts. We do business with those we trust, and we trust (some of) those we know – those we’ve stood with socially and in some neutral setting and learned something about.

So how do we expand our reach and gain trust? How do we gain the right to email or call people and ask for things that will build our business?

  • an appointment to come in and develop a proposal for our services
  • referrals
  • advice on refining our offering

Better still, how do we get them to call us? I’m afraid it’s a slow process, and the more I look at this issue the more I’m convinced there is not a shortcut, at least not for high-stakes decisions like hiring someone for services, B2B enterprise-level agreements, and the like.

In this opinion, I think I’m at odds with a lot of sales gurus, managers, and certainly a lot of company owners I’ve known, who are variously pandering, threatening, or feeling pain because of a very understandable desire to make this process go faster.

What’s the Solution?

  • Respect Reluctance – When someone doesn’t show interest, or shows an interest in not continuing, respect their space. I DM’d someone I considered a friend and asked “would you like to talk about (services I offered that I thought he might need.” Three word response – “No thank you.” I thought it was very terse and I nearly cut him loose from my life. He’s continued to be cordial, but distant, as we were before. I pushed the boundary more than I should have and then I took his response personally. Don’t be that way.
  • Meet in Safe Spaces– Some people don’t want to be rushed into lunch, beer, coffee, or whatever. Take careful note of how people want to interact at every stage. I’ve found that for many it takes 2-3 meetings in a group setting in person before it even seems right to call on them for something specific. Some people prefer a first meeting at their office where they feel more in control (and where they can fake a meeting and get away from you quicker than a restaurant, perhaps).
  • Understand that Marketers Ruin Everything– This is kind of a coda to the “Meet in Safe Spaces” point above. A benefit of early adoption can be that you can trade on a certain “implied consent” with your fellow early adopters. Remember tweet-ups? If you do business development, keep an eye on the maturity of platforms, because where you want to be is ahead of the sharks. I mentioned earlier about LinkedIn messages, for example. There was a time when the novelty of the approach – asking for a connection and then sending a message, kind of worked because hey, we were trying this crazy new LinkedIn thing together. Those days are long past, and now it’s just a different way of using email. People are still doing business via LinkedIn, just as people are still using email, but there is no social currency to it now.

What do We Get for What We’re Giving?

  • Offer Something of Value– No, you can’t always anticipate what people will be interested in and genuinely need to hear. But please do your best. People will respect you for a pitch that falls flat because they already have a vendor for something, but everyone is tired of hearing from people that do things you don’t even need. Anyone who looked at my social profiles for ten minutes should be able to tell I don’t have any need to hire offshore developers directly in my present role. If you’re offering a “seminar,” make sure it’s really educational. I have a rule on content I offer – it should send people away knowing more than they did before, whether they hire me or not. It is, in fact, the only kind of free consulting I offer.
  • Don’t Forget the Objective– now, all this said, I am in no way suggesting you become what an old marketing prof of mine called a “professional visitor.” Another syndrome I see is “industry celebrity,” where the objective is “be the most popular person at the trade show.” It’s an ego boost, and I guess if you’ve achieved a certain status because you’re really the Elvis of your particular niche, you can call it a victory lap. But for most of us, the trick is to do everything I’ve mentioned above, while not losing site of the fact that all the chamber of commerce chicken you eat, all the nights away from home, all the gasoline you burn is to get prospects into your funnel. You can do that while respecting people, not being pushy, and for that matter, on the flip-side, not being dismissive of people that are not candidates for your services. It’s called “being genuine.”

A Tortured 90’s Rom-Com Analogy

In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil (Bill Murray) makes a mess of his day and finds himself reliving it endlessly. His focus turns to Rita (Andie McDowell). His objective, in true ’90s Rom-Com fashion, is frankly to get her into bed with him. He begins as a grumpy klutz, because that’s the baseline he’s established in the movie (and his life) before things went haywire. As he finds that he has endless opportunity to “practice” his “pitch” on Rita (because he’s the only one who realizes he’s in a loop; Rita and everyone else are unaware of the loop), he perfects it – up to a point. He gets closer, and closer, and closer. Just like that frog who jumps halfway closer to the top of the well with every leap, he ends every trial with his face getting slapped.

Things change for him only when he gives up. When he decides to work on being genuine, and gives up on his selfish objective, good things happen.