By Justin Hectus
Susie Smith is calling for the fourth time. She knows you are very busy, but if you could just carve out 20 minutes for a Web demonstration, she can show you how her solutions can eliminate all of your backup headaches. Bob Jones is calling on behalf of Acme Software and wants to hear about how he can help you with your e-discovery initiatives in 2014. He doesn’t quite sound like a Bob Jones. Dave Johnson wants to know if you have any storage and virtualization initiatives in the coming year. His regional VP will be in the area and he would like to make an appointment for an introduction. Joe Somebody wants to talk about his extranet solution and he is certain that if you will return this, his 17th call, you will be glad you did.
These faceless voices in a sea of unsolicited calls all seem certain that you need what they are selling and their relentless pursuit of your business creates an avalanche of voice messages. Screening calls becomes a constant daily activity for you or for your assistant. If you really become very good at it, you can keep them all at bay. None shall pass.
But for those of you who have perfected the stiff arm, you may be missing an opportunity. There is both good practice and the potential of value hidden amongst the cold calls. If you choose to take the onslaught head on you can actually bolster your confidence in your existing solutions, perfect your own elevator pitches, and actually reduce the time you spend dealing with (or avoiding) these calls. On occasion, you may even find that the person on the other end of the phone not only knows what they are talking about, but they are calling at the exact right time to provide the help you need.
Like Moths to a Flame
I have been in the CIO role for over 10 years, and during that time our firm has made a fairly significant commitment to leveraging technology as a core component of how we serve and achieve good results on behalf of our clients. The combination of those two factors has resulted in our being on every call list for every vendor. The calls became so frequent that a few years ago I started casually tracking the amount of IT-related sales cold calls I received. At that time, I was receiving between 30 and 50 unsolicited calls per week. It didn’t take long for me to realize that simply sending these calls to voicemail resulted in a geometric increase in call volume. These callers work on commissions or quotas and a caller who is told “he’ll call you back” or who leaves an unanswered voicemail will try again and again and again.
I felt like I was hiding from the paparazzi. I lived in fear of Joe Somebody getting through on that 18th call and the resulting feeling of guilt for avoiding his calls that compels me to repay Joe by sitting through a Web demo of his software or, worse, a meeting with his VP who just happens to be in town the following week. Upon some reflection, I came to the realization that if I could have one very short and very direct call the first time that Joe called, I could avoid dodging 17 more calls and the potential threat of more wasted time.
Take ‘Em All, Then Sort ‘Em Out
At that point, I decided that I would take every vendor cold call and do my best to resolve the call in 150 seconds or less. I quickly realized that as long as I had the right information at my fingertips, two and a half minutes was enough time to either politely convince the caller that we were a bad target customer for them or to re-align their expectations to match the opportunity timeline at our firm. I catalogued the types of calls and categorized them along with our internal projects and financing and created a timeline that I could reference when a call came in. Someone called to sell me copiers and I could tell them in 60 seconds that I appreciated their call and that our lease was coming up in June 2014 and we would be taking bids in March 2014 and would appreciate a call back in March if they wanted to be considered. When March rolls around, you can bet that I will have all of those folks calling back precisely when I need to talk with them. ISP cold calls are deferred to a date 120 days prior to the end of our current contract. Integrators are given a 30-second pitch on how our current engineering consultants have come through for us at 2:00 AM on a Sunday night and they have earned our loyalty. Random vendors with potentially interesting solutions are asked to call back in late Q3 or early Q4 so that we could talk in advance of setting our budget for the following year. I frequently dispatch vendors by telling them (truthfully) that we had a solution in place or that we had a trusted partner in their prospective role already and I provide enough facts or stats to make it clear that I am not just blowing them off. When appropriate, I use the phrase “I appreciate you reaching out to us; I am certain that we are a bad target customer for you at this point for reasons A, B and C, but I don’t mind if you call back in one year to check in again in case the situation has changed.”
The results have been pretty profound. Most importantly, I am spending much less time taking these calls than I was dodging them. I have also found the process integrates an ongoing gut check regarding our existing solutions and suppliers into my daily practice. It either strengthens my resolve in existing systems and people or it helps me position for a review at an appropriate time. This practice pays dividends when I’m making the business case internally for where we are and where we want to go. I also find that the meaningful calls are aligning more closely with our needs and their opportunities — rather than getting extranet calls throughout the year, the major players know to call me three months prior to our renewal for an evaluation. Without exception the sales people seem to appreciate the fact that I take their call and many seem flat out surprised. The better sales people never object to a quick thoughtful explanation of where you are and why you won’t be ready to consider their solution for six or 12 months. The best sales people don’t want to waste your time or theirs; they simply want to align your opportunity with their product or solution.
In the age of a spam message going to 100,000 prospects in a nanosecond, a cold call represents an investment on behalf of the company calling. I think it is worth appreciating the fact that a human being is taking the time to pick up the phone and call. If the caller is unreceptive to logic or becomes dismissive or rude I can dump them abruptly, but otherwise I recognize the dance for what it is: they have something to sell and they are just trying to find someone who needs it.
The Ultimate Goal Achieved
We believe in the symbiotic relationship between a law firm and the vendor community. From the unsolicited vendor cold-call to the multi-decade vendor/partner relationship, our firm has a unique way of dealing with IT vendors and the results are increases in efficiency, better relationships, better service and better prices.
By simply taking these cold calls, I occasionally come across something that is unexpected, economical and necessary. No matter how many trade publications and white papers you devour and no matter how many conferences and peer group meetings you attend, it never hurts to have another touch point. If you pay close attention to it, the landscape of vendor cold calls has a Darwinian underpinning to it. New challenges breed new solutions and the effective solutions attract effective sales people who stick around for more than just the moment of their initial cold call. These solutions exist for a reason and stand the test of time. Participating in the process by taking the call has value beyond the 150 seconds you burn.
Justin Hectus is a member of the Legal Tech Newsletter’s Board of Editors and the CIO of Keesal, Young & Logan (www.kyl.com), an 80-lawyer firm operating in five offices around the Pacific Rim.