Cold Calling and B2B Appointment Setting – What’s Changed in 20 Years?

I set my first C-Level B2B Sales Appointment in 1994. The first million-dollar account obtained from one of those appointments changed that same year. Some things that used to get results, don’t today. But, contrary to the throw the baby out with the bath water crowd “all the rules” are not different today.

My take on cold calling and appointment setting changes in last 20 years.

1. The window of opportunity has narrowed.

Not closed. Narrowed. The same combination of list quality, messaging, call frequency and touches that won in the old days will not win today. You need to know what is now mission impossible and what is now viable to find qualified prospects and missing out on new accounts due to misallocation of assets.

2. Messaging must be more direct to have impact.

Words matter. They matter more today than they did 20 years ago. To connect with buyers messaging must be more direct, to the point, convey benefits that matter to buyers. Overly generic watered down “we are great, we care, we want to get together” messaging does not make the cut.

3. Economically, smaller-ticket, smaller-margin, low-lifetime-value offers tend not to make economic sense today.

The baseline costs of callers and infrastructure don’t make sense given conversion and closing rates of lower priced lower margin offers. This is where the window has narrowed the most. If you are running a team that is laser focused on high probability targets, call with a highly efficient call process and can close, close, close, you can wring profit from what is a sure loss for most, but those situations are fewer and farther between.

4. Credibility has emerged as a key sales prospecting differentiator.

Your perceived credibility is critical to success. Those you call have more choices today and like to pick their spots. If you sell widgets and call someone dissatisfied with their widget supplier and actively looking for other sources, are the odds good they will meet with you? Why should they meet with you? With a few key strokes, they can make their own choice of which suppliers are worth their time. If you do not communicate top shelf credibility, unlikely to be found with a few keystrokes, most will not agree to meet with you.

A little tangent here. People love to harrumph harrumph that buyers “have no time” and “are so busy” today. So why would serious buyers invest time with those that communicate mediocre credibility, no credibility or leave them guessing about their credibility, when they can select better with a few keystrokes? They won’t.

5. Mega-money comes from a longer term view.

This difference is a bit nuanced. Regular readers of my meanderings have likely heard me say that the real money lies just below the surface. It does. Don’t get me wrong, things need to make economic sense during your first pass through a list, but but but but but….. reality is that you are unlikely to bump into people at exactly the right moment the first time.

Cold calling appointment setting success comes from A) booking the maximum number of qualified meetings you can with your calls. B) Identifying those that will likely buy within 3 – 15 months and properly following up on them, and C) using business intelligence gathered during the call process to implement marketing initiatives that would not otherwise be cost-effective.

Whoa. That paragraph requires some explanation. It has always been the case that you must (A) maximize the number of quality meetings scheduled with your calls. In the old days many could run profitable appointment setting campaigns focusing on shorter-term results. 20 years ago would people follow-up on a decent lead if it hit them in them in the face, sure. But frankly, many could run profitable appointment setting efforts without having to dig that deep. So identifying decent follow-ups was a “why bother” thing. Lip service was paid to this but were most really digging in deep to ID and follow-up on transactions that might occur 6, 9 or 12 months in the future? Nope.

Today, that has changed. It is now pretty much a prerequisite to run a profitable cold calling appointment setting campaign that you (B) know how to, and actually do, identify and properly follow-up on opportunities likely to close 6, 9 or 12 months down the line. This one is actually the easiest one to implement today. Tighten up your coding and segmentation, get good at handling objections and know what to do when people say ‘no” to your initial request to meet and then “no” to your response to their objection. If you or your team elongate your script preparation beyond the initial 30-second script to smarter objection handling and know what to do when suspects that fit your profile of future likely buyers say “no, no, no” you will have “B” covered. With virtually the same amount of effort you will identify worthwhile slightly longer term targets with higher conversion rates. When you start to reap that it drastically changes the ROI of your cold calling b2b appointment setting efforts.

6. Integrated or multi-faceted marketing approach should be used for maximum conversion and return on investment

This has to do with “C,” the gathering and uncovering of business intelligence during your appointment setting calls. When your team is calling you are able, with proper scripting, preparation and training, to gather very helpful information. Do companies currently use your service? Have a vendor? Who is the current vendor? What is the contract expiration or next vendor review date? How much do they buy? Do their mothers wear army boots? Even when you don’t talk to a decision-maker or are rejected by a decision-maker you can, and should, be picking up very valuable recon.

Here is how it helps. Many try various marketing tools and many attempts do not work. Maybe it is direct mail, email, dancing hot dogs, whatever. You have made multiple attempts or given a marketing initiative your best shot and it hasn’t worked. So you don’t do it anymore.

But, if you gather and make use of recon gathered during your teams calling efforts, you can now direct marketing efforts to a more focused much more qualified audience. You might mail only to companies that have vendors, or buy in certain quantities or have more than X employees. Point being that if you make use of that business intelligence a marketing initiative that was a flop to a more general less targeted audience, can generate great response when directed to a more targeted more worthwhile audience.

Proper leveraging of business intelligence or recon gathered during the call process can add additional cost-effective marketing tools to your arsenal. In fact, I feel it borders on B2B marketing malpractice to not setup and manage your call program with the idea that you will gather information that will enable you to launch very targeted marketing initiatives that would not make economic sense to a broader list.

The competitive advantages you reap by doing this are many.

You add another cost-effective tool to your marketing arsenal. You add to the ways your best suspects are touched by you. You can “touch” your most high-probability targets without having to call them. The steady drum beat of touches to your highest value targets reinforces your message and competitive advantages. They are more likely to remember you, will be more likely to reach out to you independent of a call, more responsive to future calls and will convert at a higher rate.

7. You must disqualify faster today than you used to.

Making use of business intelligence not only helps you to ID and integrate other marketing tools cost-effectively to your most worthy, it also helps you to ID and throw the worthless down the stairs. When all boats were rising 20 years ago you could be sloppy to a degree about continuing to call records that only maybe, possibly, under some circumstances, “you never know,” might buy. Not so today. It must be an objective of your calling to not only set all the appointments you can, but to actively and with precision identify and cast to the dungeons the no-prob, low-prob, low-value, no-value suspects on your list, never to see or spend any time on them again.

Example. True story. I have a vendor that is a solopreneur working from her home. She tells me the other day “I know a business that could use you.” She proceeds to relate how a cleaning company calls her a few times a year and every time she tells them she works by herself from home and will never hire a cleaning company. They keep calling her. That is super dumb. You do not need to be a sales genius or do a lot of work in the commercial cleaning industry (which I do) to know that solopreneurs working from home are waste of time prospects for commercial cleaning companies. And you should know, if you are running a call program, that it is ridiculously stupid and wasteful to keep calling people that will never buy or if they did by some miracle would buy would buy little, when there are a lot of more worthwhile people you can spend your money on.

Every call not made to the worthless is a call that could be made to the worthy or lead to finding a prospect that is worthy.

There is far less leeway today to allocate resources to groups with the mere hope and prayer that someone might buy. Far more so today, it is necessary to ID and rip out those less worthy of your time.

8. The Black Hole of Selling: First meetings, Discovery calls, and Demos have to be much better.

Today, it is harder, requires more skill and consistent effort, more organization and preparation to set B2B sales appointments with worthwhile prospects. In the old days those “first meetings” were most commonly face-to-face. It was the norm for me to put salespeople on planes to go to a sales meeting.

Today, a few things have changed. Those “first meetings” or “first interactions” are very likely to be via phone which really isn’t my major point here. My major point is that “first interactions” whether they be face to face, by phone or be labelled discovery calls or demos need to convert. Just as you need to convert a phone conversation to a qualified meeting (sell the meeting) at the highest possible rate, you need to convert “first sales interactions” to substantive next steps at the highest possible rate. I personally don’t see this getting the attention it deserves today.

In the old days not only was it easier and cheaper to get in the door, but buyers needed salespeople for information a lot more than they do now (that is an understatement) and you were interacting with buyers at typically a much earlier stage of the buying process.

“First sales meetings” are too frequently like a black hole where qualified opportunities enter never to be seen again.

Today, we pay a higher cost to get in the door, decision-makers are deeper into their sales process and they are drowning in information on what we offer. I see far too many sales representatives walking into these first interactions woefully unprepared to earn a substantive next step. The weak points are many: lack of an opening strategy, non-existent or very poor questioning, being slaves to slides that are usually boring, off-point, important only to them and insulting to any buyer with half a brain, or being clueless as to how to close on a solid next step that could lead to a sale.

Rather than rant on and on let me just say that in the old days “first meetings” were more likely to convert to 2nd meetings. Not so today.

If I was a sales manager today, parallel to my efforts to generate qualified opportunities would be a determination to do everything possible to make sure my outside reps or inside reps if they were doing discovery calls were prepared and implementing the strategies and structures that converted those interactions into next steps at the highest possible rate. I would not assume or accept “the leads suck” excuse.

Summary of how cold calling and appointment setting B2B has changed

Yes, there are many differences about effective calling today versus when I started 20 years ago. And keep in mind I personally scheduled more than 2,000 C-Level appointments. But, the point I wanted to make with this article is that I feel that the “all the rules of selling have changed’ and “everything is different” today crowd is communicating the wrong message.

When it comes to b2b Appointment setting you needed to have the right lists, have good scripts, be organized and call with a plan. You still have to do that today but you have to be even better at it today to be effective. Your lists have to be tighter, your scripts more impactful, your crm must be setup correctly and used to sort and segment, your call process must be more organized and consistent. These things are not “different.” New things have not taken their place. They were important in the old days and they are important today. But today it is even more important to be better at those things.

Today, not only do you have to be better, you must be prepared to go deeper. There is no room for sloppy today. You must be proactive in identifying the worthwhile and high-value and ruthless about kicking to the curb the no-value and low-value targets. On top of that you must make better use of business intelligence gathered during calls to implement marketing strategies that would make no economic sense if launched to a broader audience.

And finally, today it is more important to stop the bleeding at the first meeting step.

Hope these thoughts get you thinking. If they make sense to you take a look at the online master course. You can also call me to discuss your situation and some options. 978-296-2700