Monday Mornings with Madison



No matter what business you are in, chances are that it requires some degree of ‘sales.’  And anyone involved in sales can tell you that selling is a process.  There are steps.  Once you thoroughly know your product or service and you know your audience, the first step in business-to-business sales is to identify and contact a decision maker at a company that could use your product or service.  If you trying to reach a big company, it might be someone in the procurement department.  If you’re selling to a mid-sized company, it could be a department manager.  If you are selling to a small company, it might be a director or owner.  No matter who, communicating with the decision maker is often a challenge, especially without an introduction.

Getting in front of a decision maker in person can be difficult.  To do that, you often must break the ice by first speaking to them on the phone.  But that can be even more daunting, even for the most determined and persistent salesperson. Let’s face it.  The dreaded voice mail is a ruthless sale killer.  It is truly rare for any sale to be made by leaving a message on voice mail.  Thus, actually reaching a decision maker by phone is vital.  Here are some effective ways to circumvent voice mail and reach more decision-makers.

1.  Inside Connection

Avoid the dreaded voice mail.  Instead, do some legwork up front before you call the decision maker.  Call your prospect’s sales department and speak to a sales rep.  Explain that you are a sales rep and are trying to reach a certain decision maker at their company.  Ask if he/she can give you the decision maker’s direct number, e-mail address and most importantly, a good time to reach that individual.  Appeal to their empathy since the sales rep is in the same boat as you.

2.  Focused Calling

Purchase or develop your own list of decision makers.  Purchasing a list is easier but not always as reliable (a good topic for another time).  If you are making your own list, on a writing tablet, research 25 or 30 decision-makers plus their phone numbers.  Then, starting at the top of list, dial.  If you get the dreaded voice mail, hang up.  Go to the next name. Dial.  If you get voice mail again, hang up again.  Never leave a message. The idea is to race through the list til you reach a live person. If you get to the end of your list, start again at the beginning.  Still no luck? Try one more time. You’ll be surprised how often you might get through on the second or third try.  After the first round of calls, try calling at different times of the day. Top decision makers are typically in early so call then. For those you still can’t reach, try late in the day.  Then try at lunch.  Do not leave a message without making several attempts at different times of the day.

3.  Listen Carefully

When you’re not making focused calls (or after you’ve made three rounds of calls to the same number), take the time to listen carefully to decision maker’s outgoing voice mail message.  A voice mail message can give you a good feel for the decision maker’s personality, in case you need to leave a message later in the sales cycle.  For matter-of-fact voice mail messages, adopt a direct approach.  For friendly and/or informative outgoing voice mail messages, be warm and engaging.  The outgoing message may also tell you if the decision maker is out of the office. If so, don’t bother to leave a message because it will be lost with all the other accumulated messages. Instead, call back two days AFTER the decision maker returns, when he/she has had a chance to catch up on voice and email messages.

4. Break-the-Ice Email

You can prime the decision maker you will be calling by sending a break-the-ice email first… if you are able to get that person’s email address. E-mail is less intrusive.  If you have a good subject line, it might get noticed.  Say when you will be calling and that you ‘hope’ the contact will take the time to answer your call. 

5.  Beyond Caller ID

Often, it is Caller ID that is a sale killer.  To get around it, call a different department before calling the decision maker. Call the customer service department or perhaps the Chairman of the Board.  It doesn’t matter who it is.  Once you are connected, ask for your contact.  Sometimes when the call is transferred, the decision maker will see “Chairman’s office” or the Chairman’s name or another internal department’s number instead of yours. If they are in, they’ll answer.

6.  Neighbor Labor

If the decision maker you are trying to contact is at extension 218, try calling extension 217, 219 or 220. Sometimes the extensions and offices are in sequence (or in sequence by twos) and you will reach the decision-maker’s neighbor.  The best thing about this tactic is that the neighbor can “see” if your contact is in their office. Ask the person if they could peak around the corner to see if your contact is available. They often do and then transfer the call.

7. Cell Phone

If you suspect that Caller ID is the reason why your call goes unanswered and into your contact’s mail box, call from your cell phone. The number will be unfamiliar and if the decision maker is there, chances are they will answer it. (You can also use *67 which screens your number but this is a pay-for-use feature. Plus, a lot of people will not answer calls that are screened.  Check with you phone carrier for details.)

8. Pay Phone

While you may think pay phones have basically become a thing of the past, they can still serve a valuable purpose… that is, if you can find one.  If the decision-maker you are calling is screening calls, find a coffee shop that has a public phone. Order a triple grande latte, grab your master list and a roll of quarters and make calls.  If the decision maker is there, he or she will probably see “pay phone” and answer.  It is such an unusual ID, that they would wonder who was calling.  If they ask about the tactic, don’t deny it. Say you went for a coffee (true) and used the pay phone to make calls (also true).

9.  Direct Mail

If you’ve tried calling and email to no avail, another route – although admittedly more costly – is to send a package instead of an email. A bulky package such as a book – with a note attached saying you’ll call first thing in the morning – will definitely get opened.  I once knew of an advertising agency trying to get in front of a homebuilder who sent a huge bag of peanuts with a card that said “You’d have to be nuts to use another advertising agency.”  The builder was so amused that he picked up the phone and called the head of the agency.  The next week, the agency landed that builder’s account. 

If the person you are contacting is a female, the box can be the same color as the aqua blue of a Tiffany box.  That is sure to get opened!  And several months ago, a CFO at a major real estate financial services company received a box with an I-pod Nano.  Not only was that box opened, but that sales person got a call and eventually a sit-down meeting.  This approach will usually connect you with the coveted decision maker if only because the contact wants to say thank you. But more significantly, if you have to leave a message, most decision makers will feel compelled to reciprocate your gesture by calling you back.  It is expensive and extreme, but also usually effective.

10.  Up The Ante

Sometimes the decision maker you need to reach is a department head that receives a ton of sales calls.  That person is less likely to return a sales call unless he/she happens to be shopping for the particular service you are selling.  Reaching that person might be nearly impossible.  But reaching that person’s boss may actually be easier.  This is especially true in small and mid-sized companies.  If you are able to reach someone higher up the chain of command and get that person interested, then the decision maker’s boss may get the decision maker to take your call or respond to your email.

11. Last Resort

 Finally, if you have tried four or five of these tactics (or all of them), you have earned the right to leave a message. Make it short, benefit-oriented, and polite. Then be sure to follow up.  Wait three business days and leave another message.  Do this a couple of more times and wait three business days before leaving each message.  If there is no reply by then, it is time to put this lead into your Cold pile and try again in six months.

These are some creative ways to get a decision maker’s attention.  It can actually be fun to see which works best for you. You will probably find that they all work occasionally and will increase your odds of reaching more decision makers.  Good luck.


“No answer is also an answer.” Proverb

© 2010 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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