How I got a 100% conversion rate cold calling for customer development

The Story
 
I decided to call as many prospects as I could to learn more about my target market and develop some relationships. Learning the problems is the point of the interviews, even when you start with a set of hypotheses about their problems. I tried a simple call asking for a 10-15 minute interview as someone who had a business idea around solving their problems. I tried to script the interaction. I tried to ask the most important questions while they were on the phone. Most people expected a sales pitch. Even the polite ones checked out before I could get very far.

So I changed tack. Scripts, honesty, and a willing ear for their problems proved ineffective for me. Many people will tell you that prospects love to talk about their problems. They do — once they get to talking. Unfortunately, most people won’t unload their problems on strangers without first developing some level of trust. Smelling like a salesman torpedoes that potential relationship. It was imperative to build some trust up front.

I needed to build the relationship from my end first. I had to offer them value before asking for it. I could offer them education about their business. Delivering useful information to begin the relationship would get more positive responses. Unfortunately, I was cold calling these people in order to get educated. The next best option was one many people are familiar with, but isn’t always used in this context. Give something away for free.  The trick was, what could I give them? I don’t yet understand them or their business problems.

I changed the script to something like:

Hi, <name>. I’m Robert. I run <name of blog> about the <industry> and I’m looking to have conversations with people about what they’ve learned running their businesses in <industry>. I’ll use the talk and a tour of your facility to write up a post on you guys and link you up on the blog.

Every person I got on the phone with this pitch said yes. I got so many yeses I had to stop calling people because the scheduled visits were running out too far in the future. I need content for my customer focused blog. They need exposure. This appears to be a great way to start a relationship with prospects. I don’t feel like I’m calling all of these people and simply asking for a favor. Prospects don’t confuse me with a salesman. I’m going to get a lot more information using this approach than I have with past tactics.

There were a few skeptics on the phone that wanted to know what I was getting out of the arrangement. I replied with the truth:

I am working on a business idea around software in <industry>. I am looking to validate a need for software by learning from people in <industry> before I build anything. I don’t have anything to sell. I’d like to know more about <industry> and I’m happy to offer some exposure to people for that much.

Counterpoints

  • Scale — Customer development does not need to scale well. You only need 10-20 data points at each stage. It could save you months or years of wasted development effort.
  • Biased response — Compensation can bias people’s responses. This is a real problem, but I’d rather have this to consider than no one to interview. I prefer a bias to needing 10x or 100x as many calls to get interview numbers. Many people use friends and family for early customer development. That can easily lead to bias as well.
  • No media outlet — There isn’t a reason you can’t put this on a blog that isn’t 100% focused on the niche. There is also no reason you can’t start a WordPress blog about your niche. Many people are happy to have the exposure with or without attached traffic. These posts are also a great way to get relevant back links from the interviewees. Those targeted links are great for SEO purposes.

Conclusion

Wins all around. They get exposure. I get back links, interviews, relationships, and content for my blog(s). It won’t work for every context, but I think it’s a great tool for the tool box. Happy hunting.

Dream 100 Marketing and “The Ultimate Sales Machine”

I recently put down Chet Holmes’s The Ultimate Sales Machine. It is one of the best business and marketing books I’ve ever read. And I read way too many. I will attempt to summarize it in one hundred words.

Schedule six tasks everyday. Work on your business from different angles with people in your business once a week for an hour on a specific topic. Train constantly. Drill sales techniques. Use what works for your best people. Build your sales into an education department. Teach them about their market. Give away value. Connect with affiliates. Target your dream customers. Be consistent in your education-based approach. Be unique. Get noticed. Be the trade association. Follow up like crazy. Send a letter now. Call later. Send them something to help with their business. Be personal. Make life long friends. Think positive.

This resonates with what I’ve read from John Jantsch, Noah Kagan, and Jason Fried. It has made me really focused on education. I have a few specific things added to my todo list now:

  1. Create a great whitepaper and landing page(s) meant to collect email addresses. I have a way for people to subscribe now, but it has no focus.
  2. 6 item scheduled todo lists everyday. This really works for me. I am dramatically more focused and productive.
  3. Plan out the specifics of a Dream 100 marketing effort.

The last item is a big one. I need to plan mailouts, followup calls, gifts, and compare costs to customer lifetime value. I need to collect contact information for a targeted list of customers. Finally, I need to execute all of it over months and be immune to rejection. Persistence in the face of (sometimes personal) rejection is a basic sales skill, but it is far from a common skill among software developers. I have the resolve and thick skin, but something about this sort of persistence isn’t natural to me. I think it should be.