By Charles Popper
A prospective client asked me a simple question the other day: “What separates you from your competition?” Fighting my instinct to launch into a complex, long-winded discourse on strategic advantage and competitive analysis, I boiled it down to this: “We are first in the door.”
I could tell by the look on this person’s face that my brief answer caught her off-guard. But what about capabilities, quality, timeliness, effectiveness, she must be thinking!? I wasn’t trying to be curt, and my answer shouldn’t have been taken as a lack of belief in our products and the impact they can have on a membership organization. As regular readers of this column know, I champion the fact that we are the industry leaders in what we offer: yes, better products; yes, better service; yes, better effectiveness. But if I’m not first in the door, telling my story to a client or a hot prospect, then I’m just opening the door for our competition. And that’s not acceptable.
I’m a long-time member of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and would call myself an active listener on many of its LISTSERVs. These member discussion forums are a resource that allows me to keep a finger on the pulse of the association community and hear what topics and concerns are top of mind.
A member recently asked: “How do we get our name out?” That’s a topic we all should be interested in, and advice and other well-intentioned responses began to trickle in from all the usual responders. It wasn’t until someone mentioned cold calling as an effective method for getting the word out about one’s organization that the floodgates really opened.
Make no mistake, my first-in-the-door approach is built on the foundation of picking up the phone, engaging an executive in a discussion and convincing them to commit to a face-to-face meeting.
A line in the digital sand was drawn on this LISTSERV, with associations on one side and vendors on the other. To hear comments from the association executives that “cold-calling represents an effort by someone who is outdated” or that “the cold call represents desperation” was surprising. So before letting loose with my response, I thought to myself, “How do these organizations sell booth space, advertising, sponsorships or even memberships without cold calling? And if they outsource those functions, do they demand that their partner be proactive in their selling efforts?”
Giving more thought to this online dialogue, I concluded that two things were really being debated here: First, there was a debate about the merits of stereotypical, boiler-room style cold calling as opposed to consultative selling. Second, there was also a debate about the role that effective cold calling plays in an organization’s overall sales and marketing strategy.
I refuse to believe that any leader would be satisfied with a reactive sales approach to growing their business or association. In essence, that amounts to waiting for the phone to ring.
Cold calling in today’s hyper-competitive world: Real-world example
First, cold calling is part of a sales effort. To be effective, the sales executive must be able to answer the question, “Who are you calling and what are you going to say?” prior to picking up the phone. For more on this strategy, see my recent column “Like It Or Not, You’re In Sales.”
What you are planning to say to a prospect should be focused on their needs, their industry and the connection they can draw to your organization. It’s not about you.
If I’m calling the executive director of an association, then my conversation needs to focus on the impact I’ve had with organizations that he or she knows. On the other hand, if I’m an association professional calling to sell booth space or a sponsorship, my approach should focus on success stories of similar, familiar companies and how I’ve provided them with a great return on investment.
Second, many on the ASAE LISTSERV responded that instead of cold calling, a better way to spend time would be to focus on speaking engagements, volunteering within the association community, or producing effective marketing material and custom communications. Of course these items are critical, but they serve as just part of the sales story. You must take as much control as you can to engage the audience, to tell your story and control the message. You can’t rely on the conclusions they draw.
In this economic climate, competition is everywhere and getting more intense each day. I work hard to stay informed about trends, opportunities and ways to operate my business more efficiently. I have a strong idea of the path that I want to take. I want to grow revenue, bottom-line impact and the footprint that we leave in the association community. However, I do not claim to have all the answers, and I know that I am not alone in that belief. I must rely on the input of others to be truly successful. That input can come from many places.
Putting myself in the prospect’s shoes: If my phone rings unexpectedly and the person on the other end of the line has done their homework on my needs and has a solution that will help me achieve my objectives, then you can bet I’ll take that call and give them a few minutes of my time.
Back to the LISTSERV I mentioned earlier: One of the association executives posted that he essentially does not work with people who cold call him. I found that ironic since I recognized him as a good client of ours for more than five years. I guess he forgot we cold called him to start the relationship.
Charles Popper is Naylor’s vice president of association relations. He has more than 15 years of business-to-business and consumer publishing experience.
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