The art of the cold-call

Ringing up a random stranger to ask them about that job or that great idea of yours is a nerve-wracking experience.

To steady your shaky nerves, recognize that even the most successful people in the world have been in your exact same position, waiting for someone to pick up. When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was just an intrepid 12-year-old, he cold-called Hewlett-Packard’s co-founder Bill Hewlett about getting spare electronic parts. Hewlett actually picked up the phone and that conversation eventually led to an internship for Jobs.

“Most people never pick up the phone and call,” Jobs said in a 1994 interview about what he learned from the experience. “Most people never ask and that’s what separates sometimes the people that do things from the people that just dream about them. … You gotta be willing to fail.”

Asking for help on the phone places you in a vulnerable position. You can get yelled at, you can be ignored, you can hear the dial tone of a click. But once you get over the fear of rejection, you open yourself to the possibility of what could come next. Here’s how to do it yourself:

Do your homework first

Before you cold call the company of your dreams, know what you are getting yourself in for. Do your research on the person you want to talk with, so that you can convince them why a stranger is worth their time. You should at least know the name of the person before you try to call them, career coach Miriam Salpeter recommends. “Even if you can’t find someone to introduce you to your target contact, either in person or via social media, you should at least be able to find the person’s name,” she writes. “There’s no excuse for calling a company and expecting the receptionist to help you figure out the best person to meet your needs.”

Insincere flattery can make you look like a grubby social climber, but a genuine appreciation of someone’s work is usually received positively. If you are calling someone you admire, it does not hurt to let them know that. “When I did this recently, I made a point of telling the person I targeted (truthfully) that I’d been following her newsletter and her blog for years. I also made reference to something specific on her website,” Delia Lloyd wrote about her cold calling experience to find a job.

Just be sure to not talk too long about what you admire about the caller. This is not a social call between pals; it’s a networking one between strangers. It behooves you to get to the point of why you are calling once you grab someone on the phone.

Identify why this person should want to talk to you

When calling a stranger, it helps to be upfront about what value you could offer them. Could you help them with a problem? Do you have information that the company could use? Make the request specific enough that the person on the other line cannot just pass you off to another person. You may want a job, but that request is too big to be answered on a first call.

Career expert Caroline Ceniza-Levine recommends making your request as specific as you can for a first contact. “Ask about the organizational structure of the specific department you are targeting. Ask about the person who runs that group. Ask about projects in the pipeline or key objectives,” she writes. “By asking for a job, you put your cold contact on the defensive. By asking about the business, you demonstrate that you care about making an impact.”

Don’t be afraid to use a script

Take advantage of the medium you are using to contact someone. With a phone call, you can write notes to prepare and have them right in front of you as you call. That’s what investigative reporter Pamela Colloff advises for those of us who are making calls to people who may not want to hear from us.

“Sometimes when I have to make a nerve-racking reporting call — usually cold-calling someone about something awful — I write out a script. I even write out my phone number, because I’m convinced, one day, I’m going to forget,” she said on Twitter.

Writing down your introduction and your goals for the conversation are good insurance to have when your mind blanks or you start to babble nervously. Above all, recognize that it may take many cold calls before you see results. Even if one call leads to nowhere, you are gaining practice and are actively taking steps for a “yes” in the future.