Why your 80s-era phone sales strategy isn’t working


Source: Unsplash/Berkeley Communications.

I’ve been expecting phone calls this week from professional people with urgent information. They’re really busy, so if I can’t take the call, it will add days to the process.

I don’t know their numbers, so I have to answer all the calls from numbers I don’t know. Welcome to my nightmare.

I’ve spoken to many boiler-room folk who say they can move my Google search ranking to page one. Or they’re from a business with a name like ‘Buckingham Platinum Wealth’, with exciting investment schemes to lower my tax.

I feel sorry for them that this is still their job.

So many businesses are still wedded to sales and marketing methods that, if they were any more 80s, would have stepped out of a Delorean in a ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ T-shirt.

Why are they doing this? It’s based entirely on a social obligation from last century: that it’s proper manners to answer the telephone.

That obligation made phone sales a great tool when the phone sat on a table in the hall. When you had to fight your teenage sister to get off the line so you could use your dial-up modem.


Time to play incoming-caller roulette. Feeling lucky?

Phones have changed, salespeople haven’t

That trusting phone etiquette has not existed for decades. If you don’t know the number, you don’t pick up. The phone has evolved into a military-spec defence shield.

Phones have moved through the express-your-personality-via-your-quirky-ringtone era to silence. Today, if your phone makes any sound at all, it’s straight to social boomer prison. Oh Crazy Frog, what times we had.

Now that so many people are on Zoom calls all day, it’s even harder to get through. For many, it’s an etiquette crime to call even close friends without texting to say you’re about to call.

Each year’s new rules bring hand-wringing media opinion pieces: ‘My son thinks I’m angry at him all the time because I use full-stops in my texts’.

Yet still, that army of hopeful phone-sales soldiers throw themselves against the immovable barrier.

You may as well have a business model based on the expectation that people will still offer to light your cigarette, or stand when being introduced.

Phone sales: The same tired scripts

Last week’s antics aside, I still sometimes answer telemarketer calls, just because I’m interested in how business things work. I like to see if they have any new tricks. But no. It’s always the old ‘guaranteed attention-getter’ opening script.

‘Hey Ian, I’ll bet you LIKE WINE. I’m thinking you’d enjoy … *checks my demographic data* … a NICE SHIRAZ?’

These are broken, 1950s home-insulation salesman techniques. Yet I speak to plenty of small business owners who plan to hire phone salespeople and buy some lists to rustle up some revenue.

Sales management is not my zone, but I don’t know if cold calls work in any format. Ditto purchased lists.

I’ve managed a range of businesses and they all did decent sales growth by just responding competently to enquiries. We put a lot of effort into the marketing side, and in building a quality team to handle incoming interest.

Every so often, we’d put on a new business sales rep to hunt big game. A new client could be worth a six-or-seven figure amount, so we figured it was worth it, because that’s what other businesses did.

And that model worked sustainably… just let me check… zero times.

I’m not saying it’s a universal rule, that’s just been my experience.


Your blackboard sales platform could use an update.

Business owners do better sales calls

Yet outgoing calls from the business owner worked.

I think it carries more authority than the standard sales rep approach. But also, as an owner, you’re not doing sales calls all day, so you don’t have that needy, repetitive sales shtick tone. It’s more like a regular phone call.

Don’t call anyone you don’t know until you’ve exhausted every existing client who hasn’t used you for a while.

It’s much more productive. A friend just picked up a lucrative contract after he called a client he hadn’t spoken to in eight years.

If you’re a business owner, chasing sales is the most important thing you can do. It’s so easy to get distracted by what seems like important manager work.

But if you don’t have revenue, you’ve got nothing to manage.

A common, successful approach I’ve seen a lot is where the owner books in an hour first-up each morning to chase clients. No more than that, or it becomes overwhelming, but an hour won’t kill you.

Outmoded assumptions are holding you back

What other outmoded assumptions are holding you back? So many businesses still assume behaviour that was gone long ago.

Looking at you, telco, delivery and utility businesses that assume a single-income nuclear family. Where the little lady will be at home to let you in whatever time you show up within an eight-hour window.

A final note on technological change, as we enter peak office Xmas party season, or what passes for it in 2020.

I was thinking about the ghosts of Xmas parties past. When munted workmates got the urge to be naughty, and photocopied their arse on the office Xerox.

What a frightful, career-ending crime it was considered at the time.

Now, you consider the puny audience reach of a handful of A4 copies compared to your other personal media channels.

And the fact that Instagram is basically a constant wall of exposed beach arse. The photocopier high-jinks seem kind of innocent and endearing now.

That ghostly, mechanical replication of arse in primitive monotone has an artisan, Warhol quality. An artistic statement on the transient nature of work.

I hope you get loose in some way this December. We have never earnt it so much.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics.


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