The Born Freelancer on the Art of the Cold Call

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


Several posts back I interviewed a marketing guru and we discussed various forms of marketing. What he didn’t mention were some of the old school techniques that are still relevant to contemporary freelancers. I’d like to address one of them today: the cold call.

A cold call is an unexpected call, out of the blue, in an to attempt to sell your services or story to a possible buyer/employer who has usually never heard of you. They can be slightly warmed up by prefacing the call with an email (to be discussed in a subsequent post). If you have already spoken with the person at the other end it becomes a “warmer” call as much of the initial hard work has already been done.

It can be very hard work indeed, making cold calls, and the rejections can add up quickly and spoil even the most gloriously sunny day. But it can also be one of the most effective old school methods of marketing yourself and making a sale. Which is what freelancing is all about.


When should I make a cold call?
You want to be at optimal performance capability. For some of us, that is first thing in our business day when the energy is high and the outlook is positive. I find as my day goes on my energies are diverted into a million different directions. I am probably at my best to make my most successful cold calls early in the day. Of course the people I want to reach may not be there and so I may need to vary my schedule to include cold calling later in the day. However, the later it gets the less likely it is that I will find the people I need to talk to in a receptive mood. While there are always exceptions, on the whole I have found early mornings are best for the person at the other end too. Their day is fresh, and they usually still have the extra energy and patience required to receive cold calls.

I have a daily/weekly/monthly list of cold calls to make. Until I have made them, the list stays front and centre. Often it’s on a pad of paper I prop up in front of my computer screen so I can’t miss it. Only by making the calls does the list get moved away to a less “in my face” place in my work space. Why do I do this? Because like many freelancers I hate making cold calls. But they are usually necessary in our line of work.


Whom do I call?
You need to talk to he or she who can “pull the trigger” on your pitch. And to do that you will need to put in a little time (often quite a lot actually) doing preliminary research.

* A thorough perusal of the company’s website may reveal names and official titles as well as contact information.

* Make the company receptionist/secretary your telephone friend. He or she can be a fountain of useful information. They may turn out to be freelancers like yourself just temping until their real work picks up. Be friendly if you can be genuine about it. You will usually be rewarded by them giving you the direct line to the trigger-pullers in the company, once you specify a name or title or explain your quest (if you have established a good rapport.) If all else fails, call back another week and try briskly explaining you are researching information on their company and would like to know certain contact information. It’s perfectly true too.

* If you get lost in automated voicemail hell, try pressing zero to get a real live person and then try out the previous points. There may also be an automated staff directory you can access. Finally, when all else fails, try anyone there and explain you have dialed the wrong number and could they redirect you? People will often be more helpful than you would expect.


OK, I’m dialing the direct line… and I’m getting voicemail.
I hate leaving cold calls on voicemail because nobody ever calls back. Or very rarely. If I get voicemail I usually hang up and try again the next day. Or you can always try calling back, talking to the receptionist and explaining that the person is away and could they be reached at any other number? Amazingly they will sometimes page the person you want if you have been personable enough.

I prefer to leave voicemail only if there is a deadline looming to use whatever story I’m trying to pitch and there is no other way to get through. I did once leave a pitch on voicemail after a full week of getting only voicemail and hanging up on it. I figured I had nothing to lose, the deadline to use the story was nigh. To my amazement I got a call back the next Monday. I’d left the voicemail on a Friday. Later that same day I was in a radio studio doing my story. So in the end it is up to you and the circumstances of your situation.


So I got through to the person I want at last. Now what?
You’ve heard of the “elevator pitch” during which you are (in theory) on an elevator for 30-60 seconds with a studio executive and you have to explain your idea for a movie/tv show/book deal before the door opens. A cold call is exactly like that although without the fun of detecting your potential employer’s halitosis. You have about a minute, maybe two, in which to make a positive impression, deliver your pitch and elicit a response. During these precious few moments you will need to be…

* Confident and credible

Confident is obvious, if you don’t sound positive about your own pitch you are already floundering. Sounding credible means sounding competent – stating upfront who you have already worked for and any other credentials that might be relevant.

* Well informed about your subject

If you are coming in as the expert on a topic it is best to be one. The approach you take in your pitch may be wrong but the topic itself may provoke interest. If you are as fully briefed as possible you will be able to adapt your pitch and answer any questions without sounding ill-prepared.

* Able to convey your story or ideas vividly, concisely, enthusiastically

If you are invited to pitch your idea then and there (and even if you are not) you may benefit from having practiced telling your story in as few words as possible and in as vivid a manner as possible.

* Knowledgeable about the company/program/publication you are pitching

There is no point pitching a doc on the evils of whale hunting if it is a pro hunting publication. On the other hand, maybe they’ve recently done a series on whale hunting, why did you not already know that before you pitched another one?

* Knowledgeable (if at all possible) about the person you are pitching

Keep it professional, but if the editor is a known dog-lover, maybe a pitch on the latest consumer items for dogs will be better received than you’d otherwise expect.

Time spent researching is never wasted, you never know when it will help make a sale.

The person you have reached will be a busy producer/editor/publisher. They have a busy day ahead of them. But every producer/editor/publisher at some point in their day/week/month will need new ideas. And this is where we come in! So make those initial moments really work for you. The fate of your pitch rests on them.


The closer
You now want the go ahead.

In an ideal world, you get it. Well done!

In a more typical world, there is some interest but no sale… yet. Listen carefully, ask what it would take to make it more desirable? Never say “What is the problem?” You’ve just turned your pitch into a problem. You should be able to improv variations on your first pitch on the spot. This might be enough although they may need a followup email with further details.

Or you may need to throw in a time sensitive incentive (depending on the nature of the pitch) to make the deal seem sweeter. You are only available up to a certain date. You can only guarantee them an exclusive option so long, etc.

But often you’ll get rejection. Don’t take it personally. Ask if there is anything they are looking for that might fall into your area of expertise? Often while they are listening to you they are thinking about whatever hole in their schedule they are trying to fill and if your piece of the puzzle fits. It might be very close. The trick is to go in with your best shot but be sensitive to the necessity of adaptation and evolution of your pitch into something that they want and can use.

I went into one broadcasting company looking for freelance work on air. During the course of the pitch I casually mentioned my writing credentials. Turns out they were looking for someone to write scripts so I quickly moved my game into freelance scriptwriting. Later, my writing work for them had gone so well that they gave me some on air shifts too. If they like you, and like what you bring to the table, they will likely use you however best they can.

Never blow them off if you meet with rejection however brusque. Explain you appreciate their time and would like to contact them again another time with additional pitches – and when would be convenient in general terms? Even a rejection can give you an “in” because the next time you call – assuming you have left a positive impression – your cold call will now be that much warmer.


Seeking face time
We work in a world wherein you may never meet your employer. They may be in another city or half way around the world. Most of my regular employers remain a voice on the phone or a signature in an email. However, whenever possible, I still like to try to meet them. It establishes you as a real person, someone a little bit harder to ignore, reject or slam the phone down on. This will be a golden opportunity to followup on the pitch (if sold) or to try new pitches (if it didn’t sell) assuming you feel strongly this is a company/show/publication you wish to join in a freelance capacity. If you have made a good impression most editors/producers will try to find time to meet you. And if you’ve not, then they probably won’t. It’s a good litmus test.

Sooner or later your cold calls will lead to a sale if you are persistent and good at what you do. Yes, there will be more rejection than acceptance at first. You must guard against taking it personally and getting depressed. It is a numbers game. And if you make enough cold calls, sooner or later you will make a “winning” call. And there is nothing as exciting or as motivating. It is almost (I did say almost) as good as actually cashing the cheque! And take heart that even rejection may eventually lead to a sale. Always remember, you are selling yourself as well as your ideas.


I wish you success with all your future cold calls. If you have any tips you’d like to share, please do so using the comments feature below. I’ve only just scratched the surface of this important and underrated old school marketing tool.



Posted on June 6, 2013 at 9:15 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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