I’m a consultant — an expensive, trust-based business. I’ve never even bothered to cold call potential clients, because what sort of lunatic would spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on advice from a stranger? I’ve harshly warned other aspiring consultants off the practice: no one likes to be cold-called (I rarely even pick up my phone anymore unless I’m expecting a call) and it reeks of desperation.
But in the course of researching my new book, Reinventing You, I gained a newfound understanding of its merits. Cold-calling doesn’t have to be about sleazy sales tactics or the quick hit; instead, it can simply be a way to connect with someone you might never otherwise have access to — even, it turns out, billionaires.
After stints running a graphic design firm and working for NASA, Elizabeth Amini found herself unsure about her professional direction. She was interested in several different fields, but lacked contacts she could tap for informational interviews. She realized she needed to get creative about cold calls.
Once you’ve identified who you’d like to meet, the first step is having some sort of imprimatur behind you so they’re more likely to pay attention. The CEO — the public face of the company — is bombarded with requests. That’s why Elizabeth started out one notch lower, with the office of the Chief Operating Officer, “because that secretary knows everybody,” she says. Her goal wasn’t actually to score an interview with the COO, which was probably unlikely. Instead, it was to get their imprimatur: “You can say, I know the COO is probably not the right person to talk to, but who is your best salesperson, or your rock star marketing person? And then you can say the COO’s office recommended them, and they’re not going to blow you off.”
Next, it’s important to understand their time constraints. Asking a complete stranger for 30 or 60 minutes of their time is almost a guaranteed no. Instead, she’d ask, “Is it possible to schedule a 10 minute phone call or, if you’re free, I’d be happy to take you to lunch? Most people will opt for the phone call, which seems easy in comparison to lunch, and now you have an appointment on the books.”
It’s important to show genuine interest: they might know nothing about you, but you need to have done extensive research on them. Says Elizabeth, “If they have a book, read it, because no one writes these people and says ‘I read your book.'” (It’s an understatement to say most CEOs’ tomes don’t get the same reception as Jack Welch’s.) Then, tell them, “I was impressed by XYZ, and I’d like to ask you some questions about how you became so successful.”
Finally, you have to be willing to seize opportunity. Elizabeth was used to persevering through blow-offs or rejections; one executive literally cancelled on her six times before she eventually met with him. “Until I get a ‘No, never call me again,’ this is in play,” she says. But she was less prepared for the moment when she succeeded beyond her wildest imagination. Browsing the Forbes 500, she read about a billionaire real estate mogul who lived in her city. She called after 5:30 p.m. (post-secretary hours), got him on the phone — “and, oddly, he agreed to lunch,” she recalls.
She was thrilled with the opportunity, but shortly after she got off the phone, she panicked. “I said ‘Pick your favorite place,’ but then I thought, Where do billionaires go for lunch? What if lunch is $1000?” She decided to proceed, despite the risks: I’ll put it on my credit card, she thought, and if it’s more than my rent, I’ll find a way to pay it off. The mogul took her to a local deli (his favorite spot) and lunch for two came to $17. He spent an incredible 90 minutes with her and “outlined exactly what it took to be him.”
Elizabeth’s cold call-driven informational interviews gave her insights that continue to resonate in her new career, running an online game startup based on cutting-edge brain research. “You end up with all these random lessons that are important, even if the person’s field is not relevant to you in the end,” she says.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on May 3, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.