Time to rethink your cold-call strategy

It’s time to rethink how we make sales calls.  I also think of emails as “calls”. Since so few executives in my industry (startup/hi-tech) welcome cold phone calls anymore, I start with an email introduction. There’s no sense in sinking the ship before it leaves the shore.    So, here’s the typical lifecycle of a recruiter email solicitation:

Recruiter: Dear Mr. Doe-

I saw that you’re hiring a Marketing Director at Company X.  You’re in luck, I have a candidate you MUST meet.  She meets all the criteria for your job, brings 10+ years of experience in your industry, has a top 5 MBA, and would make for a great fit in your organization.  Can we meet on a 5-minute call to discuss how my firm can help you hire the best Director of Marketing on the market?

Hiring Manager: zzzzzzz

[jump forward two weeks]

Recruiter: Hello [FIELD= First Name],

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I have an exceptional candidate for your opening of  (FIELD=Job Title], and it appears that you haven’t been able to fill the role yet.  As it turns out, that candidate is gaining quite a lot of traction in the market. Additionally, I can send 4 other top performers your way immediately.  I have total confidence that each candidate will exceed your unique expectations at [FIELD=Company Name].

Hiring Manager: [delete]

[jump forward two weeks]

Recruiter: John-

Since I haven’t heard back from you regarding my candidates for your director of marketing position, I have no choice but to place them with your competitors.   Would you kindly forward me the contact info for those companies?



[Not a chance in hell that you haven’t already been fastracked to junk mail]

My firm practices executive search across high-tech market segments. Our clients are mostly tech startups who have evolved past the incubation stage and are entering or blasting through accelerated growth periods.  I don’t actually HIRE Product Managers, Data Analysts, or Engineers. But my clients do.  Still, when we open a new requisition, I will undoubtedly receive half dozen sales calls from recruiting sweatshops proffering the perfect candidate (for a small fee).

I haven’t always been a recruiter.  In fact, I’ve never been a recruiter for a larger firm. I learned the business from my business partner (and twin brother), Tyson, who for years led Executive Search for the West Coast with Manpower, INC (NYSE: MAN) before we partnered to start Élever Professional.  In the early days of our agency, he’d regale me with stories of maniacal cold-call quotas.  So, it’s not a huge surprise to me that I get cold-calls from recruiters, pitching me on their perfect candidates even though I couldn’t be more squarely in their competitive field.  If a requirement of your job is to cold-call 500 hiring execs weekly, there is little time to qualify leads.  Open requisition + Hiring Manager=Qualified Lead. It’s faulty math, I think.  Some popular methods of enhancing the cold-call above:

  • Include a couple of blind resumes (resumes crafted intently for the purpose of detailing qualifications without disclosing details that would identify the individual)
  • Itemize a candidate’s technical skills and practical experiences that meet the qualifications listed in the job description
  • Include a spreadsheet anonymously depicting a deep pipeline of candidates qualified for the role
  • Bribery- offer a $500 Starbuck’s gift card to anyone who replies

Ok, so I’ve never actually seen bribery employed, though I often wonder if it isn’t worth trying.  When we were starting out, Tyson and I groveled quite a bit for new clients.  In the beginning we hired a small but hungry team of sourcers and junior recruiters and they needed to eat.  Everyone at Élever, myself included has sent out thousands of those cold-call emails.  We’ve tweaked and re-tweaked our pro-forma introductions hundreds of times.   We’ve calculated keyword success, measured efficacy of time and day, segmented endlessly and A/B/C/D tested our way through the alphabet until we ran out of letters (so we turned to the Arabic alphabet). What I’ve concluded is that it doesn’t work.

It’s popular (though inaccurate) to define “insanity” as  “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  I disagree with that idiom.  I think it better defines futility than insanity.  Semantics aside, I did feel like I was going crazy awaiting the new clients I’d hope my cold-calling efforts would yield, new clients that ultimately never arrived.   This is a standard method in sales, tried and true for as long as commerce has existed. Why doesn’t it work?

  • We’re not selling shower curtain rings, vacuum cleaners, or even ERP systems. The most important aspects of human capital additions cannot be quantified in a list of professional qualifications or skills.  Especially true for smaller flatter organizations like the ones at many of the companies we work with.  You’re delivering an email to someone you’ve never met who is hiring at a company you know little about, exposing a fatal flaw in your accountability.   You’re suggesting that you are qualified to assess cultural fit. You’re not. To a hiring manager, you might as well be peddling snake oil.
  • You’re making the assertion that you’re more capable of recruiting than the person in charge of recruiting, who is also the person you’re selling to.  Some people take offense to stuff like that.  Perhaps you should figure out a way to pitch a partnership that complements the hiring manager’s strengths, rather than pitching your services as one that fills a weakness that may or may not exist.
  • You’re not the only one claiming to be the best.  You haven’t offered anything that differentiates your service from the 30 other recruiters cold-calling in response to the req.  You might actually have the undisputed champion of Marketing Directors in your pipeline.  But according to every one of the nearly identical cold calls, so does everyone else.  Rather than assuming that your candidates distinguish you from the competition, figure out what actually does make you different and sell that rather than merely selling inventory.
  • You’re betting on highly improbable odds.  Specifically, you’re betting that the person you’re writing is desperate enough that he/she is willing to overlook that: a)    You’re not trustworthy, b) you’re insulting c) you’re just like the rest of the slimy bunch.

My team at Élever knows that we won’t survive by simply churning out volume, hustling around for the quick flips, pushing paperwork from one desk to another. Our business is only as sustainable as the relationships we forge daily.  It’s a lot like dating in that regard.  If we were recruiting life partners rather than Product Managers, would you call me back if I introduced myself to you with a list of qualifications: rock-hard abs, 10 years of experience in the kitchen, excellent communicator at cocktail parties.  Terrible analogy. Hopefully you get my drift.

Check out how Lars Schmidt at Amplify Talent suggests reinventing job descriptions. Besides breaking through the visual constraints of the standard job advert, Lars emphasizes personality traits that will inevitably attract people who will more closely espouse the cultural aspects of the jobs we’re tasked with filling, those aspects that are hardest to quantify and harder yet to find The emphasis, of course, is on PERSON rather than JOB.  If you’re still trying to forge relationships by peddling job-doers rather than selling relationships with PEOPLE, stop it.  It doesn’t work.

Jeremy Spring is a Sr. Recruiter and VP at Élever Professional.  He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, dachshund, pit bull, and nine hens.  Shout your comments to him on Twitter @JeremySpring or Connect with him on LinkedIn