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Breaking Freelance Rule #1: You Must Make Cold Calls

Back in my undergrad years, I remember reading a career book called something like “How to Get a Job in 30 Days”. I was about to finish my junior year in college and sit out my summer months with no job and thus no money. The idea of finding work in a month sounded very appealing so I decided I would thoroughly read and follow every piece of advice this book gave me.

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As it turned out, most of the book’s advice centered on making cold calls to potential employers. The idea was to make contact with the hiring manager and, before this person could even say no, schedule an appointment with him/her.

The conversation was supposed to go like this:

“Hello, my name is Halina, and I noticed you have a job opening in your forensic sciences department. I’m a perfect candidate because I’ve watched numerous episodes of CSI and have also appeared on COPS. I have the first of April available for a meeting; how does that work for you?”

Figuring that anyone who had actually published a book on how to find a job (in just 30 days!) knew what s/he was talking about, I dutifully started making cold calls. Half the time the employer’s voicemail picked up my call; I gave my shpeel and, with a sigh of relief, never heard from that person again. On occasion, I would actually reach the hiring head; luckily, I had my pitch written down on several crinkly notebook pages and that helped me as I recited my stage lines.

After about two weeks of making cold calls and having no one return my requests for a meeting, I gave up. I guess I’ll never know if, having put in the full 30-day cold calling effort, I would’ve been rewarded with a job. However, I did  realize something: I am not cut out for cold calling. And also, after spending the last 15 years of my post-undergrad life receiving cold calls from everyone from insurance salesmen to career coaches to mortgage refi experts, I’ve realized that no one is really cut out for cold calling. There are three reasons why:

1. Cold calls put clients on the spot.

When you cold call someone, you never know just what s/he was doing right up to receiving your call. If that person is having a lousy day, you can bet that your call isn’t going to make things better. Alternately, that person may be having a great day and is about to head out for drinks- just when the phone rings. Out of sheer politeness, that person will pick up the phone (especially if colleagues are watching)- and then try to get rid of you as fast as possible.

Even if the person hears you out , s/he can’t just agree to meet you or hire you without at least first consulting with colleagues. Furthermore, taking on a new person, even on a contract basis, requires careful consideration that cannot be completed in the space of a single phone call. Thus, you often get stuck making an average of five calls to the same person in order to score just one lead.

2. Cold calls waste time.

The consensus amongst professional cold callers is that you’re lucky if you get even 10% of respondents to not instantly say no. Gee, that’s encouraging. In other words, 90% of the time you spend researching potential clients to cold call is wasted. Indeed, you shouldn’t even bother researching potential clients and what they do because, 90% of the time, you won’t even get beyond “Hello, my name is-” before you’re told to #%$! off.

Even proponents of cold calling such as Mike Schultz of the Wellesley Hills Group state that, when “done right”, cold calls bring in just 13% of new business. Maybe I’m just not easily satisfied, but I get a higher percentage of clients by using LinkedIn and in much less time.

3. Cold calls put you on the spot.

I’m not saying all cold calls won’t work. Admittedly, cold calls, just like door-to-door salesmen, have had their place in history as a way of making customers aware of businesses and products. And sometimes those door-to-door salesmen do get into the customer’s house. But once that point is reached, what then? At least that salesman could quickly look around the house and assess whether the homeowner needed a new vacuum cleaner. What can you really assess from your end of the phone?

As a freelancer, you’re probably dealing with complex businesses with complex needs. Your job is not as simple as just providing content, or writing a software program, or fixing a leaky faucet- at least not if you want to keep your clients and have repeat business. To truly understand your clients and their needs, you must look beyond the “one-and-done” job and find out where the problems really lie and what you can do to decrease losses or raise profits. That includes even something as “simple” as fixing a leaky faucet. And that kind of in-depth analysis is not going to happen instantaneously, such as during a 5-10 minute cold call.

How can you generate sales leads and win clients without making cold calls?

You can generate strong sales leads and have potential clients approach you- yes you- without making a single cold call. There are many strategies involved:

1. Write warm emails.

Do some careful research on your potential company or client and find out what issues and crises are at play. Then, find the hiring manager/client and write him/her regarding your observations and what you can do to improve the business’ bottom line. Give specific suggestions for improvement, then follow up with examples. If posible, back up your suggestions with your personal work experience. I provide an illustration of this technique on my LinkedIn post.

2. Network-strategically.

Traditional networking events where everyone gets too drunk too fast on free booze may not work for you. However, you can achieve a far higher networking success rate by actually joining your prospective client’s network. How does this happen? Use the power of Google and LinkedIn to research your prospects, then get involved in whatever organization or cause they’re involved in.

Yes, this is a back-end strategy and it also takes more effort- but it’s a great excuse to become more involved in your community. Just make sure that you actually like the organization you join because it’s hard to fake long-term sincerity. You’ll also find out that your prospective clients typically share connections with other likely clients who are also involved in the same organization or cause. Coincidence…or not?

3. Work/help/teach for free.

Many freelancers shy away from doing free work, fearing that it will result in never getting paid work. However, in many cases, you can use free work to make prospective clients aware of you and the types of services you offer. In the course of time, when these prospects have a need for your services, they’ll be more likely to hire you than someone whose work they haven’t seen directly and whose personality may clash with theirs.

For example, if you’re hoping to get hired as a staff writer for a magazine and you know that a given organization regularly publishes with this magazine, it would be wise of you to volunteer your writing efforts to this organization. Alternately, you may wish to give a free seminar or class at a school or company you’re trying to crack into. Just make sure that your freebie item relates to the skill set you’re trying to sell; in other words, don’t offer a class on brewing beer -however tempting that might be- if you’re trying to sell your C++ programming skills.

Even offering to help someone out can sometimes land you in that person’s good graces. I honestly suspect I landed one of my clients simply by helping him unsubscribe from Facebook.

4. Conduct interviews.

As a writer, I have a natural excuse for interviewing people; in fact, some of my work demands it. However, it has occurred to me that interviews themselves can be used as another back-end or extended networking method. Let’s face it, people love to talk about themselves and will typically agree to your request for an interview. And once that interview is completed, that hour or two of feel-good face time is bound to be remembered by the interviewee.

Interviews need not always be work-related; maybe you’re considering changing careers and would like some advice. Maybe you’ve always been fascinated by a potential client’s work and just want additional details. My natural curiosity about other people’s work has landed me in some interesting situations including the following: getting a furniture store tour (plus a killer offer on a dining set), having a top-to-bottom tour of the “W” hotel, being treated to a private candy kitchen tasting, running the movie projector at a D.C. theater for an evening, and engaging in melanoma research. If I play my cards right, I might soon be conducting neuronal electrophysiology experiments.

In none of these situations was I actively considering landing the client or business; I was merely curious about the people and their jobs. But I could easily have transformed the information I gathered into an easy job opportunity or three, now that I think about it.

Don’t be a mercenary- don’t make cold calls.

The bottom line with cold calls and why I don’t believe in them is that cold calls place you in a mercenary role; i.e., you must make this sale/land this client/score an interview- or else. The person you call ends up feeling manipulated and used. You fail to establish a personal relationship with the client or business, resulting in you losing out on follow-up business even if you do get the initial sale/job/interview.

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Instead of being a mercenary, be an ally.

Approach your clients or businesses by first seeing things from their point of view. Try to help first without thinking about money or making that sale. Taking this approach will require some effort (and a change in mindset) and will not be achieved in the space of a 5-10 minute cold call or even several cold calls. But the end result of your extra effort will be worth it. And should all else fail, you’ll have gained a friend.

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