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How to use the phone for business sales calls

Nigel Temple @nigeltemple asked me the following question: “Do you have any tips for using the phone in business? What is the earliest time of day that is acceptable to start calling? Do scripts still work? What is the right way of calling a LinkedIn contact and what would you say in the opening 10 seconds? Is it OK to call prospective clients from mobile phones?”

Earliest time to start calling: 8am if you’re calling someone in their office on their landline. If you’re calling their mobile I would leave it to 8.30 or even 9 because you don’t know if they’re working from home and most people don’t want to be disturbed there if they’re getting the kids off to school or whatever else they might be doing to get ready for the day.

I would be careful calling mobiles if you don’t know them. Most of us are quite protective of our mobile numbers – but I believe it’s ‘fair game’ if I call you on an office landline number. If you already know the person you’ll know when it’s OK to call and whether to use their mobile or landline. For example, one of my clients has back to back meetings every Monday and most Tuesdays so I wait to call him later in the week. He’s a high Mover (see so he loves to speak on his mobile rather than dealing with email.) If you know the person you will know what their situation is (i.e. do they work from home and what the best time to call is).

The point of calling early is to either get past any protective secretary or PA, or to catch your prospect before they get involved in meetings. If you’re calling someone ‘cold’, i.e. for the first time and you don’t know them, I would start calling them at some time during the day rather than early in the morning or early in the evening (say, after 5.30). It’s only when I’m being rebuffed by a secretary or a PA that I would call them early, say, before 9am, or early evening to get past the protective PA who may not be at his or her desk at that time. Turn it into a ‘warm’ call by doing some research first and make the call appropriate and relevant for them.

You will need to know how to contact the decision-makers in your target organisations – is it by email, by landline, by mobile or through social media? Many people are happy to ‘hide behind’ email and voicemail. Whether you use the phone to communicate with them will be guided by the organisation and the sector. Businesses probably fall into one of 3 categories re the phone:

1. There will be those companies which use email extensively, almost exclusively, and it would therefore be pointless looking for phone numbers.
2. There will be those companies which only use mobiles – literally there will be no landline numbers.
3. And there will still be many businesses which have a main reception with a switchboard to direct calls to the appropriate person.

A lot of business is still done on the phone. So unless you’re just selling from your website you need to be confident and competent on the phone. What that means is that you have to be able to establish rapport, qualify your prospect, find a need, present your offering in a way that meets the need and close on an action step, as well as countering any objections along the way. In other words you need to be skilful in the sales process, either face to face or on the phone, or indeed in email. I’m not saying that you should give your sales presentation over the phone – you need to be doing that ideally face to face – but there will be times when it’s appropriate to do some of it over the phone or in email.

So that means two things: first you need to know the sales process for your product/service and the sector(s) into which you are selling and second you need to get some practice and experience in using it.

Do scripts still work? Yes, but they need to become a guide for you, not to be followed slavishly. The best scripts will form the basis of what to say or what to ask and are used in that way. As soon as you give prospects a scripted conversation most of them will recognise it as such and switch off. One of the reasons for that is that salespeople don’t adapt them to their personality or experience. It’s up to you to understand what you’re doing and how to personalise it for each prospect. Most of us will need some help with creating the basis for a script – we are too close to our own products / services and will tend to present our features and benefits too early rather than asking questions. Having a script means that someone has put some thought into how the call might go, which has to be a plus.

What should I say to a LinkedIn contact? If I were calling a LinkedIn contact I might start by saying something like: “John, good morning, my name is Walter Blackburn, I’m the founder of Presenting Success – we haven’t spoken but I noticed from your LinkedIn profile that you’re involved in major pitches in the oil industry and we’ve had some great success in helping people to improve their conversion rates. I’m conscious that this may not be a concern for you right now, but it may be that we could have something of interest for you. Have you got a moment to speak now or should I call you later? (Wait for response – assuming the response is positive). “Good. Could I ask you then how tough your people are finding their pitches in these days of strong competition?”

Often it’s good to ask early on in the conversation if people have a moment to speak or should you call back later. This is not only polite but it gets over the awkward situation which you may have experienced where someone has answered their phone in a meeting and can’t really talk openly but doesn’t say until well into the call that they’re in a meeting and it’s not convenient to speak to you.

What you don’t say is “Good morning, John, how are you today?” or pretend that you’re friends by being over-familiar. The prospect knows that you’re not phoning to enquire after their health or well-being and busy businesspeople will resent the attempt at rapport-building which isn’t genuine.

The three questions uppermost in the prospect’s mind are “who are you?”; “what do you want?” and “how are you different?” If you want to have any success you will need to answer all three quickly and effectively. AND you will want to get the prospect talking about their business, rather than giving them a presentation down the phone.

You will need a good ‘elevator pitch’. This is a statement of what you do and why you’re different which can be said in less than 20 seconds. This is essential for the phone, for email or for an initial face to face meeting. It needs to be interesting and relevant at the least. If you can make it compelling, so much the better. When I attend networking events I introduce myself as someone who can help people create ‘outstanding business relationships’. Inevitably it gains immediate interest and people ask me “what do you mean by that?” It leads to productive conversations and business.

Is it OK to call prospects from a mobile phone? Absolutely. Gone are the days when it would be expected that you’d call from an office. The world has changed significantly and probably everyone accepts that you provide value even though you don’t work for a big corporate. In fact, you may offer better value as you can be more flexible and you don’t have the overheads of the corporate. Be ready to give your mobile number if asked. One way to say that is: “the best number to reach me is my mobile – 07889 167 486, that’s 07889 167 486.” I make sure that I say the last 8 in the number very clearly as it can be mistaken for a zero if it’s not clearly spoken.

Don’t call when you can’t concentrate or are in noisy environments (train stations can be difficult, or having children shouting in the background if you’re at home is probably not helpful to your credibility). If you are calling from a mobile, then don’t do it in a moving car even if you’re on hands-free as you’ll want to concentrate on the call and write notes as the conversation progresses. If you call from a moving train be aware that on some lines you may lose the signal, and the last thing you want is to lose contact with your hard-won prospect. Better to wait till you’re not moving.

Leaving a message: Be prepared to leave a message on someone’s phone (either mobile or landline) if you get their voicemail. You will want to think carefully what the message is before you make the call, or whether you’re going to leave a message at all. If you do leave a message make sure to leave your contact number, though don’t expect anyone to call you back, however good your proposition! This may be the first time the prospect has heard from you and you’re looking to come across as polite, competent and useful.

Calling a referral. When you’re lucky or skilful enough to have a referral to call (someone suggested by one of your happy clients), you should use their name first in the call rather than your own name, as it should be familiar to your prospect and therefore you can hope for a more positive reception. For example: “Good morning, John. Alistair Smith suggested I call you. My name is Walter Blackburn – I’m the founder of Presenting Success and we’ve been working with Alistair on the presentation skills of his team and he thought what we’re doing might be of interest to you. Has Alistair said anything to you about our work?”

Your manner on the phone. The rule is always to be unfailingly polite. If you’ve worked in a company of any size and known secretaries, PA’s and assistants you will know that occasionally salespeople calling in can come across as rude or arrogant particularly when they’re told that the person they want to speak to is not available. This approach never works as the rudeness or arrogance is almost always reported to the person concerned. In fact the person will probably ask the assistant who took the call what the salesperson was like. A wrong approach can lead to no business.

Fear of the phone. Nobody wants to be rejected – we probably fear it – and we believe it’s easy for others to reject us from a phone call, so, we reason, best not to call in the first place. Somehow we believe that our self-worth is determined by how others receive us on the phone. If you’ve ever worked in or had experience of a busy call centre you’ll have realised that the call centre staff quickly have to get over their fear of rejection or they don’t survive in the job. It helps that they’re usually taught, and eventually realise, that it’s not personal. If you fear calling people on the phone then get someone who is skilled at this to work with you to create a script (see above) and then to practice it.

The bottom line. If you want more business it’s probably going to come from people you’re not currently working with. So you’re going to need a strategy to let them know you exist and potentially have something of value for them. That’s probably why you’re interested in Nigel’s stuff – he’s the marketing guru. But whatever the strategy almost certainly at some point it’s going to include using the phone. If you’ve read this far – get over your fear and get good at it!


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