Briefings Magazine

Will Cold Calling Ever Go Cold?

A major bank recently dropped their use, but unsolicited sales pitches have endured since at least the 18th century. 

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By Glenn Rifkin

The Former president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant had just completed his memoir, days before his death in 1885, but didn’t have a publisher. As it turned out, his friend and editor, Mark Twain, had a plan. Instead of accepting a publisher’s small royalty, the famed author and raconteur promoted the book by fanning out 10,000 former Union soldiers to go door-to-door. The upshot: The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant became the first mega-selling presidential autobiography.

Call this the birth of that most pesky of business tools, the one we know today as cold calling. With the proliferation of artificial intelligence, predictive marketing, and commercial rocket launches into space, it seems society would have evolved beyond this analog practice long ago. And yet it persists, through one iteration after another.

Many credit the father of modern sales management—John Henry Patterson, the CEO of the National Cash Register Corporation—with codifying the idea of cold calling in the mid-1800s. After taking ownership of a floundering NCR, Patterson endeavored to boost sales by instituting quotas and offering commissions. He also created a sales script. His employee manual, called the Primer, instructed salesmen: “Avoid giving the impression to the merchant that you are trying to force him to buy. No man likes to feel he is being sold.”

“Patterson really codified sales management and said there is a process here and we need to identify that process,” says Frank Cespedes, a management professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in sales management. Later, in 1906, Alfred C. Fuller founded the Fuller Brush Company and began deploying what became a famed door-to-door sales icon. And then, of course, there were the infamous Hoover, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Avon sales reps. As the telephone became more ubiquitous, “lead lists” began to appear, pioneering the earliest days of telemarketing.

The term “cold calling” emerged from the use of the word “cold,” meaning “without warning.” It’s often considered outmoded in today’s highly connected sales environment, and in one head-turning move, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management recently unveiled a new advisor-training program banning the practice. Still, as anyone with a phone can attest, it lives on, proving that regardless of the medium, persistence continues to count for something. “There’s still a fairly high correlation between the number of calls a rep makes and their outcomes,” Cespedes says.

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