The cold call or cold contact is difficult, because you’re selling something with no prior knowledge of what the person needs or wants – you call them and take a guess. That’s annoying for the person you’re calling.
Solo consultant and freelance software developers tell me the cold call is often the apex of discomfort for them – an excruciating exercise that also never seems to work.
I hate cold calling, but how else am I meant to get in touch with a company I don’t know? They’ll probably shut me down and hate me for contacting them anyway, so why even bother?
But here’s the good news.
Under certain (albeit limited) circumstances, the cold call – any kind of cold contact – can work. The trick is to warm it up and do as much research as possible beforehand.
And software developers’ ability to investigate and solve problems is the exact skill set that helps you do this.
Let’s unpick the approach.
If the thought of marketing worries you, go back to basics – it’s about building relationships and helping people.
Acquiring consulting clients is totally dependent on building solid relationships, not making sales. Trust is the key to strong and healthy relationships, and trust is the honest-to-goodness belief that the other person has your best interests in mind. – Dr Alan Weiss, Getting Started in Consulting
Even if you loathe the idea of cold contact, if you have the person’s best interests in mind, you can use the opportunity to start building a trust relationship.
So now the real issue is creating a situation where you get to do this – to start to solve someone’s problem.
Your goal with this technique is to research and discover concrete problems and offer targeted solutions.
If you can’t find a problem, you can’t offer a solution – hence the reason this only works under certain limited circumstances.
Everyone who cold contacts probably does some research before they email, pick up the phone, send a letter etc. But we’re going to make the research process more targeted.
Make a list
Make a wish list of half-a-dozen companies you’d like to have as clients. Be realistic in your choice of company. There’s a huge difference between Apple and a local startup. Focus on ones that genuinely excite and inspire you. Why? This technique works if you’re genuinely passionate about the companies you’re contacting. Emphasis on ‘genuinely’. In a sentence, write down why they’re remarkable to you.
Start to research these companies more thoroughly. Dig around their websites. Google them and read news articles about them. Check their social media. Educate yourself. What’s going on with them?
Then go deeper. Start to identify their challenges. Have they talked about a problem you could solve or part solve?
Remember to read between the lines. You see they’ve been looking for a certain kind of software developer for months and can’t fill the role (the post goes up, comes down, and goes up again). Or you read the head of software has left and it’s created ripples in the organisation. Or you see their app or website is often down or full of bugs. People are complaining about it online or in the iTunes store.
Dig. Investigate. Your goal is to find a concrete problem.
By the way, looking at their website and thinking, ‘It looks a bit rubbish and in need of an update,’ isn’t an indication of a problem – unless they’ve said that somewhere. Lots of companies have terrible websites, but it just isn’t a problem for them, so they’re not motivated to take action. You need to see a concrete indication they’re struggling with something, and have a clear idea about how you’d help them. If you can’t find a problem, this approach doesn’t work.
Find the focal
Once you’ve found something concrete, start to research the focal in the company who’d handle it. Go through LinkedIn. Read employee profiles. You’re looking for the contact details of the true buyer – someone who would sign off on the budget to solve this problem. You’ll have to make an educated guess if you can’t work it out for certain.
Why is this important?
People do business with people, not companies.
If you can find this person, check if they’re active on social media and, if yes, follow them and look at the issues they talk about or things they ask for help with.
With the focal identified, start to research whether you know someone who could put you in touch with this person. You might not be able to, but it’s worth investigating.
#2. Warm it up
Now you’re going to work on making the cold contact warmer over the course of the coming days and weeks.
Social media engagement
This is a great way to get on someone’s radar, but it has to be done from a place of genuine interest. You can’t fake interest in a company or person, which is why it’s important to choose companies (and people who work for these companies) you’re genuinely interested in.
Engagement basically means following someone and reacting to things they share on social media. This includes liking their posts, re-posting their posts, tagging them with something you think they’d be interested in. If they share something that helps you, thank them. Tell them how it helped. Make it personal. See: Talk to me: How to start conversations on social media.
If you’re lucky enough to know someone who’s in touch with the person you’re trying to reach out to, consider asking for an introduction.
But make sure you know the intermediary well beforehand. It can be uncomfortable (for you and the other person) if you ask someone you barely know to introduce you to someone you don’t know at all.
Be upfront. Explain you’re looking for an introduction, because you’re a big fan of the company this person works for, you’ve seen an issue they’re dealing with and you’d like to explore ways to talk to them about it.
If you’ve managed to connect with your contact via another contact, great. And if you’re connecting on social media, even better.
If not, never mind.
Now it’s time to send an email.
You need to show very quickly you’ve taken time to understand their challenges, you’re keen to help them, and you’re a fan of the company.
Don’t be gushy, but sometimes you just have to let someone know their company matters to you.
Here’s a template. Remember to keep it really short.
I saw you’ve been looking to hire a Scala developer for about four months now and I wanted to reach out to you about it.
I’ve been a fan of [company] for a long time. I really admire your CEO, John Smith. He’s been a game changer in the industry and influenced the approach I take to software development.
I’m an experienced Scala developer. I wanted to ask if you’d ever considered hiring a consultant / freelance Scala developer while you continue your search for a full-time employee.
Would it make sense to talk for 10 minutes?
Hope to hear from you.
Kind regards, … [email signature, link to website etc.]
You can also send a letter.
“Who even sends letters anymore?” I hear you say.
But here’s a story.
A while back, a PR agency sent me a really colourful flyer outlining their services, together with a nicely worded letter printed on heavy paper and sent in an expensive envelope. The flyer was bright pink and stood out.
They hadn’t done their research, and subsequently didn’t hit any of my biggest challenges (they really missed a trick, because I have plenty when it comes to PR), but I kept that flyer on my desk for weeks before throwing it away.
But as an email, I would have deleted it instantly.
Print marketing collateral can catch people’s attention in a way email can’t.
So can food.
Eh, what do I mean? Read this story about the donut pitch: A genius lands 10 job interviews by delivering his resume in boxes of donuts.
This was for employment, not business, but can you think of ways to grab your favourite company’s attention by sending them an interesting gift through the post?
You can also call.
When I call, I write a script out first and practice saying it out loud. I lead with the important stuff and keep it really short. It’ll sound very similar to the email above.
Calling can be more nerve wracking than emailing, but it’s harder to put the phone down on someone than it is to delete an email.
#4. Follow it up
Finally, if you emailed or sent a letter, leave it a couple of days and then follow up, by email or by phone.
Remember, it could take a while to build the relationship. Continue with your research, social media engagement etc.
You need to love the company you want to work with. Research it, know all about it. Be passionate about it. Look for problems, offer solutions. If you do, this strategy can work.