If, like me, you work for a smaller company, or you work for yourself, at times you need to put on different hats. One role that sends shivers down my spine more than most others is that of the cold-calling salesman. I hate nothing more than calling up complete strangers to establish whether they’re interested in giving my company money for services.

When you’re in this situation, there are a few things to remember. First, you’re not alone. Even the most battle-hardened salespeople loathe the cold call. Second, in general, the person you’re speaking to is a stranger and even if you make a fool of yourself, the only people that will know are you and the unfamiliar voice in your ear. Third, there are ways to make the experience a little easier.

The situation: Too many leads, not enough salespeople
The company I work for recently developed a mini-CRM system for a popular accounting package. Rather than spending big dollars for an overpowered CRM system, companies could buy our add-on and still work in the environment they were used to. They could capture support calls, feedback, and general client information and use this to improve their marketing strategies. Everyone in the company was excited and believed the product was a winner.

The challenge was telling the world about it. Rather than selling directly to the public, we decided to sell to the distributors of the accounting package and split the profits. The first advantage of this was that we already knew the distributing partners. The second advantage was that this strategy offset the marketing costs—the distributors would contact their clients at no direct cost to us.

Just telling the distributors was a big task. The accounting package was a major player in the market and that meant hundreds of companies to call. Everyone in my company was given the task of being a salesperson for a couple of days. Those of us outside of our comfort zone grumbled but, at the end of the day, a dollar coming into the company meant our wages would be paid. To add incentive, we were told that we would get a kickback for every sale made.

Step one: Organize your list
Since I also had clients to attend to, there was a good chance I was not going to get through the list of names given to me. That was okay; the people I didn’t get to would go back on the list for the sales team to deal with. This being the case, I wanted to organize my list so that I could put a few extra dollars in my back pocket with the good leads.

I needed to sort the list of contacts according to the chance of success. First in my list of criteria were any companies I had a connection with. If I knew someone working at a company, it went to the top of the list. If you have someone on the inside, you can ask a lot more probing questions than you can otherwise. You can find out the company’s needs, find out who is the best person to talk with to make a sale, and generally customize the pitch for success; you can work out which features to emphasize and which to downplay.

For me, one example was a company that had recently used a third-party product with its own security. In this case, the “secure product” had left a hole open on the company’s network and before anyone knew what was happening, its server was holding a good fraction of the Internet’s pirated DVDs and music for redistribution. The company was nervous about third-party products, so when it came to calling the decision-maker, I made sure I emphasized that our product used the existing security mechanisms and did not introduce holes. I conveyed my deep concern to him about security issues, which, of course, we both shared.

Step two: People do not buy from unhappy people
People don’t like to be swindled and are less likely to buy from someone who isn’t confident in the product he’s selling. If you sound nervous and awkward when you’re phoning people, this will raise suspicions and the potential customers will be less likely to buy.

Before touching the handset, I had to think objectively about why our product was of benefit and why it would be a good use of the client’s money. I had to determine why I was doing them a favor by giving them a call and not wasting their time. Not everyone can pick up on a phoney, but if people sense that you believe in what you’re saying, they will be more motivated to buy your product. If you can’t think of anything good about what you’re selling, and genuinely think it’s a waste of the client’s time and money, talk to the sales team or management about your concerns.

Step three: All performances need a good script
When I leave messages on answering machines, I tend to babble and talk nonsense. I get nervous and continue the one-way conversation well beyond its natural death. If I’m not prepared, I’m the same in cold calls. That’s why I believe that a script is very important. It doesn’t have to be a verbatim transcript of what you intend to say (in fact, I recommend that it not be) but rather a list of key benefits or features you want to impress on the client. Also remember that the receptionist is probably not the best person to sell to. If you don’t have a direct contact on your list, call the company, ask for an appropriate person, such as the head of sales, and take it from there. Don’t apologize for calling. You’re doing them a favor.

To get further value from the call, record the response. If they’re interested, know what your next step is. If they’re interested but the timing is not great, ensure that the lead gets to the right person for follow-up. Finally, if they’re not interested at all, try to find out why. Marketing can use the information to devise campaigns to tackle these sorts of obstacles later.

The bottom line
Cold calling makes most people, even seasoned salespeople, uncomfortable. To get the most out of it and to make the experience as pleasant as possible, get prepared. Ensure some early wins by putting good leads at the top of the list. Go into it knowing that some people will not be interested and quite possibly will be rude. That’s okay; it’s their loss and their competitor’s gain. Last, structure your thoughts before you call. This leaves you free to ad lib when something comes at you from left field. While cold calling may not be something you enjoy, it will exercise some muscles not usually used in your usual working week and broaden your range of skills.