how to change the world

Cold calling: ghastly at first

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time
— Thomas Edison

By John-Paul Flintoff

The first time I tried cold calling, it was awful.

I was in San Francisco. I had a student work permit for the summer, while I was at university. My friends had taken jobs riding tourists around town in pedicabs, or working behind the counter in a deli – but I was going to make lots of money selling subscriptions to Time magazine.

The job ad was very compelling. It promised an enormous commission, certainly by the standards of my income at that time. Even before I had landed the job, I could imagine myself living the high life while my friends toiled away for peanuts.

At the interview, I told the boss I had sales experience – which was a lie, so what happened next was entirely deserved.

He gave me some leads to call – a heap of names, addresses and phone numbers, printed on slips of thin paper (this was before digital). He gave me a script, and instructions to follow it closely.

Oh, and one one other thing, he said: “You mustn’t hang up on anybody. They can hang up on you, but not the other way round. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, because you English are very polite. You got a big advantage with that accent.”

Then he showed me to my desk. “I’ll be listening in, every so often, to see how you are doing,” he said. I think this was meant to be encouraging.

I spent a little time reading the script, to internalise it, make it seem natural. At this distance, I don’t remember the exact words. But I do remember thinking that I would probably subscribe to Time magazine myself, if somebody recited them to me with sufficient warmth and a hint of spontaneity.

By now, my new colleagues were already well into making calls. Some had closed some sales. I hadn’t even started. So I took up the receiver, ready to dial, and picked up the first of my leads.

I was no expert, but the name looked Chinese. I looked at the one beneath: also Chinese. And the one beneath that. In fact, they all appeared to be Chinese. They must have been extracted from a phone directory, and all of them were from the same part of the city: Chinatown.

My heart sank a little. But I had no idea, yet, how difficult this would make my job.

I started confidently, asking for the individual named on my slips of paper. Sometimes that was the person who answered the phone, sometimes they put the receiver down to fetch someone else.

And when I was sure I had the right person, I launched into my script, with as much warmth as I could muster – only to be interrupted fairly quickly by somebody speaking Chinese.

I couldn’t hang up, and I knew my supervisor might be listening, so I kept talking English. This had the effect of enraging the people I’d called: not once but always. And eventually they hung up on me.

I could feel my heart racing. And after a few hours of this, my confidence crumpled. I found I was making calls hunched over the phone, my voice low, so that my neighbours wouldn’t hear my humiliation. I didn’t realise at the time that this posture, and this quiet tone, made selling even more unlikely.

Between calls, I looked around at my colleagues, working their phones, and marvelled at their ability. I was particularly struck by the only other Englishman in the room – a blond guy with round John Lennon specs – who kept getting up to high-five his neighbours. He was obviously doing very well.

In a coffee break, I asked him for his secret. He said the accent was a huge asset. “Americans love it.”

But not Chinese Americans – at least, not the ones I was calling. They didn’t love my accent. They didn’t love me calling them. They wanted me to go away. At least, I think they did, but to be strictly accurate, I didn’t understand what they were shouting at me. Only this was clear: they never got anywhere near subscribing to Time magazine.

After three days, I gave up. I was convinced that cold calling required a quality I didn’t possess. Happily, I found out a few years later that this was not true… In fact, I now find myself training people in sales.

And I’ll be writing soon about what changed my mind.

Posted: February 14, 2017