How I got a 100% conversion rate cold calling prospects 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.


  • 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.


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.

If you liked this post: check out my cold calling book, ‘Cold Calling Early Customers’.

About Robert Graham

I am Robert Graham. In late 2009 I launched my first attempt at a SaaS webapp and business. In 2012 I wrote a book about cold calling for startups. I write code, do marketing, outsource, and live through the ups and downs. You can read about my adventures here. Google Authorship

44 Responses to How I got a 100% conversion rate cold calling prospects for customer development.

  1. Jon Bizri July 14, 2011 at 2:34 am #

    That is genius. Link-backs – a currency we all have to offer.

  2. JP Richardson July 14, 2011 at 2:43 am #

    Brilliant. You’re being genuine and you might actually get some customers out of the interaction. Be sure to write a follow up post on how it’s all going. Best of luck!

  3. Sue July 14, 2011 at 2:52 am #

    Thanks for this – it’s helpful in showing how to switch up the formula. I had been leaving networking bonuses like this as closers to the interview, and respondents were always really receptive to it. Now I can unabashedly offer it upfront!

  4. Chris July 14, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    Simply brilliant! All this time i’ve been thinking i’d like to write staff scheduling software for cafe’s, if only i could make some contacts with cafe owners. This sounds like a great way to make those contacts.
    Do you mind telling us which blog it is that you’ve got? Was it important to the prospects that your blog has lots of readers? Also, were the prospects you called in an internet-related industry where linkbacks and blog posts are important to them? Or were they simply bricks and mortar?

    • rgraham July 14, 2011 at 4:32 am #

      The blog in question is fledgling (~ 6 months old). It has little traffic, but is growing quickly. The industry is wildlife management. None of the business owners I spoke with even asked about traffic. They aren’t (usually) technically sophisticated.

      They typically do have websites and they sell breeder stock wildlife online through different channels. Link backs and online PR can really benefit them and they recognize that.

      The business requires acreage, starter animals with recognized genetics/pedigree, and a lot of dirty work.

  5. Izni July 14, 2011 at 5:13 am #

    Your posting here is a fresh angle for me. I, like everyone else, would have tried the conventional method and to be frank, clients are smart and they can smell a sales pitch a mile away.

    I am going to think of a nice and friendly tone and manner on how to approach new clients by taking your advice here..

    BTW, found this posting on which lead me here :)


  6. Al July 14, 2011 at 9:17 am #

    Figuring out what the other party needs is the key to successful business and you’ve figured out how to do that before you even have something to sell them. Bravo.

  7. Mikhail July 14, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Thank you for the recipies. It looks quite similar with the negotiation techniques of Jim Camp described in his book “Start with No”.
    Best regards,

  8. Brad Spencer July 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    What a great idea. Actually having a blog where you right about them would be awesome, too!

    • rgraham July 14, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

      I do have such a blog. This is a vastly different audience. I’ve intentionally kept it a little partitioned.

  9. Jason Hanley July 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Such a simple idea, but I can only imagine how amazingly effective this was.

    Any thoughts on how to apply a similar technique when you _do_ have a product and you _are_ selling something?

    • rgraham July 15, 2011 at 12:17 am #

      It’s not uncommon in sales to have a funnel or layers to the process with cold prospects. I think adding or experimenting with that top layer and using your first point of contact to build a relationship is the way to start. Education-based marketing is what I’d suggest. Do some research. Learn interesting facts that can help their business. Assemble a report. Deliver the report as part of the sales process. Unfortunately the specifics are hugely context dependent on market, product, pricing, etc.

  10. Dan July 15, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    I wrote a post called “interview relentlessly” that borrows heavily from this post. Thanks for the excellent script, and I would be curious to read a follow up post from you detailing any adjustments you make to the pitch after additional customer contact.

    • rgraham July 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

      Great, Dan, I’m glad you dig it. I’m headed out for my first face-to-face in a short while. I will definitely post some thoughts.

  11. Akshay July 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Hey Robert – awesome post! Shared it with a bunch of people who found it useful. I thought I followed a similar approach to an outreach we’ve been doing recently but we haven’ t had the success you had. Wondering if you’d be open to maybe chatting ? Would love to figure out where we’ve faltered.

    - Akshay

    • rgraham July 31, 2011 at 1:24 am #

      Hi Akshay…sure I’d be happy to chat. Send me an email. See the about page for an address.

  12. Giles Farrow July 17, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    Excellent idea, I can see how this works as a win:win.

    Like Dan above it would be great to hear how this works in practice. Please keep us posted.

    But I can imagine this would not work so well if you are targetting large or old-fashioned companies, they may:
    - need to go through their PR department
    - want to see lots of traffic

  13. Tommy July 17, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Brilliant. The spark I needed. Thanks!

  14. Lawrence Anderson November 17, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    Whoa! Offering exposure on your blog was really clever! I don’t do telemarketing but oddly enough, your script was the closest thing to what I would have done if I were in a caller’s shoes. Coming off as a salesman really isn’t something you should do any more when coming in contact with people’s homes (be you a telemarketer or even just an old fashioned door-to-door salesperson). This was really insightful. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Pam Alvord November 18, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I love your approach. Unfortunately, most cold calling is poorly done — check out the good, bad and ugly in my blog “Your lead gen practices are making me look like a bitch”

  16. apple December 12, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    I will immediately snatch your rss as I can not in finding your email subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please let me recognize in order that I may subscribe. Thanks.

  17. Elyse December 19, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    Some good tactics, but its seems a little underhanded to say you have a blog, like a reporter for a non-existant newspaper.

    • rgraham December 29, 2011 at 9:56 am #

      I suppose it would be if I didn’t have a blog in that industry, but I did have one. It’s not clear to me that that is underhanded.

  18. Derick Thompson April 23, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    Very practical and slick perspective on this. Would love to have you guest blog this post and potentially others to our small business audience on bizHive. Just signed up for keepify – and think we might be able to help provide an early feedback loop with small businesses if you’re interested.


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