alt text image of a red phone booth

What Cold Calling Means

There’s a lot of confusion about what a cold call is and what a cold call is not. Whenever I write about cold calling I get emails and comments from people who insist the cold calling is dead. A few days ago I even had Jeffrey Gitomer comment to that effect on this post. But I don’t believe Mr. Gitomer means what some people think he means (but who knows, maybe he’ll correct me).

I believe there’s some confusion around the words cold calling, and that confusion is a matter of semantics. We’re using the same words but we mean something different.

When I talk about cold calling, I am talking about calling someone who is not expecting your call in order to initiate a sales conversation. What makes it cold is that they aren’t expecting your call.

Different Meanings

It’s important to understand that when people say they’re opposed to cold calling they are taking about picking up the phone and indiscriminately dialing through a list of numbers without doing any research—and without doing anything to improve your odds of success. This is not a good strategy. It never has been.

In fact, in the days before computers (B.C.), if you were hired to sell, someone would throw a phone book on your desk, tell you that the book was your “leads,” and expect you to dial numbers. This is what some people mean when they say cold calling is dead. But even in the old days smart salespeople knew better than that. They read the business sections of the local papers, local business journals, attended networking events, and did everything possible to gain knowledge, insight, and introductions—anything that would allow them to make a warmer call.

The reason there is so much confusion around the words cold calling is because a lot of people who tell you cold calling his dead mean that you should do everything possible to make a warmer call instead of indiscriminately dialing phone numbers. And they’re right—even though the person on the other end may still not be expecting your call.

But another group of people, I called them the anti-cold calling charlatans, literally mean that you should never pick up the phone and call prospects. They go to far, and many of them offer awful advice. You can almost always spot the anti-cold calling charlatans because they always suggest that sales is a dirty word, that you should feel a sense of shame, and even change your title to disguise the fact that you’re selling. This is criminal negligence as advice given to sales people. Criminal!

When I write that I am an advocate for cold calling, it doesn’t mean that I’m an advocate for indiscriminately dialing numbers without being smart enough to do any research. It doesn’t mean I’m an advocate for not trying to connect with your prospects on LinkedIn. It doesn’t mean that I believe the cold calling is better then asking for a referral and an introduction from a client that already loves you (even though in my experience people that don’t cold call don’t ask for referrals either).

What it does mean is that you are the salesperson. After you’ve done everything you can to make a warmer call, you still need to pick up the phone and dial your dream client. You should also do whatever you can do to improve the likelihood that they say, “yes” in front of that call.

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  • Mike Kunkle

    To quote Socrates, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”

    I have no confusion about what “cold calling” means, save this… why don’t we just call it all “prospecting?” There are a variety of ways to do it… pure cold walk-ins (I still know reps who walk and talk their way through office buildings, from floor to floor, and pick up clients) to socially-warmed leads, to following up on introductions. But it’s all still prospecting. Or, at least to me. ;-) And maybe Socrates. I think he’d be on my side. ;-)

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      It is all prospecting. But then, they forced Socrates to drink Hemlock for supporting Sparta, didn’t they?

  • Chris Johnson

    You don’t wait for permission to sell stuff.

    40% research
    60% instigation.

    Or vice versa.

    But yeah, there are a million methods.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      So true. Waiting is a very, very bad idea.

  • Daniel Francès

    Exactamundo. Cold Calling needs to be defined as:

    telephone call made by a salesperson to a potential client who has
    never been in touch with you personally and is not expecting a call, in order to turn him into a client.
    This does not mean that the Cold Caller has not networked, performed his homework, researched, tailored or prepared.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      You went all Arthur Fonzarelli on us there, Daniel! I like it.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      You went Fonzarelli on us here, Daniel!

  • Patrick McHugh

    Cold calling is alive and well. It only works if it’s part of a process.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino


  • Brett

    Although the ultimate reason to make calls is to find folks to whom you can bring value, a side benefit is learning how to perfect our own understanding of the value we bring. People have less time. In order to be successful on a call, I have to be laser clear on what I bring to the table and how to communicate it. I’m going to stretch a movie quote here, but the C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands said that ‘I don’t pray to change God. I pray to change myself.’ Sometimes, cold calling has a refining effect on our sales skills even if it never moves the dial on a prospect (although my best opportunities have come from deciding who I’d like to work with and calling them–when they least expected).

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Nice insight, Brett!

  • David Chevalier

    Even the phone book with no research might work if you are selling the right thing. I think that’s what the newspaper companies are doing to get some new subscribers.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I think you’re right. My wife just subscribed because she felt bad for the local paper.

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  • Sean Claire

    Great article- couldnt agree with you more. The phone is still an effective way to establish new relationships- but it cannot be used alone. Maximize the calling efforts by integrating with email, twitter, linkedin, and field events.

    Now- another subject that I’d love to get your take on….onsite cold calling. You know who the prospect is. You’ve left them voicemails. Sent them emails. Maybe even tried to engage via twitter. How do you feel about stopping by without an invitation? The sole purpose is to drop off a business card or marketing swag. How do you feel about that?

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Hey Sean ,

      I think it’s rude to stop by without an appointment, but it does still work sometimes. I think the way to make that successful is to ask for an appointment at a future date. Most people are too busy to drop everything just because you darkened their doorway.


  • Pingback: Social Selling & Cold Calling: It’s NOT one or the other | Social Selling University

  • Janine Soika

    I agree, cold calling, or as @Mike Kunkle stated prospecting, is still a very effective sales approach. Although more customers are empowered through the Internet and can conduct their own research and identify products and vendors on their own, when you reach out to a target prospect you are now creating awareness of your product/company. This can help the prospect consider your service/solution/product/company even if they weren’t considering your company as an option before the initial contact.
    The key to successful prospecting/cold calling is to 1) identify the most likely prospects for your offering 2) deliver your message in a compelling way that makes the prospect want to learn more (i.e. address a pain point, hit an emotional trigger, educate – teach them something they didn’t know, etc.) 3) lead the prospect down the decision making process, tell them the next step to take, 4) follow up, you got their interest now don’t lose it, 5) handle objections, and 6) ask for the order, close the deal.

  • Brick

    Too far. Not “to far”