Recently I was catching up with a friend for coffee, talking old jobs. She asked about the time I used to work in sales, cold-calling customers, selling insurance.
“Was it like Mad Men?” she asked. “Could you smoke inside?”
First of all, no, I am not that old. But thinking about it, my time working as an agent cold-calling customers really does feel like it was from another era, even though it was only two decades ago.
Reflecting on it, I realised that not much has changed. The methods and the channels have evolved, but the key values we prioritised are the same.
It’s the same for me. My hairstyle is better now, yes; but my music taste hasn’t changed — it’s still firmly still stuck in the 1980s (which, yes, was considered retro even then). So I thought I’d call up some of my favourite titles to look at what has changed in phone sales … and what has stayed the same.
Outbound vs inbound sales
When I was cold-calling back in 2000, the market for health insurance was ripe for the picking. Customers couldn’t just search Google for help and there was barely any competition. Two decades ago I had a conversion rate of 23%, which was great back then — today, a good cold-calling conversion rate would be significantly lower. Outbound cold-calling met a need back then that doesn’t exist today. Today, the real opportunity is in inbound sales and service. You’re on the phone with someone who is already engaged with your business, and you have a key opportunity to offer them an even better customer experience.
Hello… Is it Me You’re Looking For?
Understand the customer
What hasn’t changed? You don’t need two separate customer service and sales people. A great sales person will know and understand the benefits of providing an excellent customer experience.
The type of person that you need to profile are agents who can resolve an issue, understand customers needs and "lead" a customer to a solution quickly. This type of person tends to makes a great sales person.
Despite having staff who can do both service and sales, you need to be far more strategic about your inbound sales opportunities and route them to the people who will convert higher sales on each call. Customers have so many opportunities to access self-serve sales channels, so any inbound sales opportunity will be rare.
Invariably this leaves us with two teams - blended (sales people who can upsell/cross-sell even on a service enquiry and manage the service call) and super sales people (those who make the most out of a sales opportunity).
We’re all customers, at the end of the day, and I know I don’t want to be talked into buying something I really don’t want or need.
Back when I was cold-calling, we had something customers couldn’t get elsewhere: information. Nowadays, if you want to learn about insurance, you can ask your friends on Facebook, search Google for reviews, look at iSelect.
It wasn’t about talking customers into doing something, it was about providing valuable information and educating customers. And today, while the internet helps proactive customers find out how to get a better deal, people don’t know what they don’t know — and that’s where inbound sales comes in with the value. I don’t think I had my successful conversion rate because I had special tricks up my sleeve. It was because I’d spend the time to really understand the customer.
Building trust, understanding their motivation, discovering their needs. Explaining and educating the customer on the product and highlighting the benefits. You find out what they need and provide the right solution for them. It’s that simple; and the basics haven’t changed.
Into the Groove
Training, training, training
You’ve got to start off on the right foot with the proper training. The training methods might have evolved in the last two decades, but the core of it is the same. Don’t rush it. Train the managers then train the agents. Bring the team leaders on your agent training too – they need to understand what the team is being trained on and how to embed it.
Some people have naturally great sales skills, others need to be exposed to it to learn it. Regardless, the most important elements are that the agent has the right attitude and that the in a trainer is someone passionate about sales with high energy. The passion needs to come from the top. People need to feel it from their team leader and through the centre.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
Reward, recognition and motivation matters
It’s really important that the centre feel is vibrant and fun. Dress-up days, lunches, incentives… all of this makes the agents love their workplace, enjoy coming to work and being part of a “family”. Equally important is reward and recognition from a performance perspective. A lot of the time, companies focus on the high achievers. This is important, however, you will find rewarding people for improvement drives the right behaviours and increases performance which is what you would see in any centre focused on continuous improvement.
You need the engagement, the monitoring, and the follow-through. You need to get the agents buy-in to be able to identify what they need to change in order to improve their performance and then measure that against last month’s results. If that didn’t work then you need to revisit why, or try something different; with a continuous improvement cycle.
She Blinded Me with Science
Data and monitoring
I personally believe you should measure the number of sales and conversion rate to overall leads. You need to look at occupancy, adherence, service levels and cancellation metrics. If all of these are being achieved or exceeded, then there is not much more to look at. AHT is important to monitor and manage when required, however, if agents are ticking all the boxes with the other data then your KPIs will be achieved.
The management team need to keep their finger on the pulse. When I was a sales manager I could tell if we were making sales or not by the sound on the floor. There was a particular hum you could almost feel.
When it comes to inbound sales and service, you want to keep things transparent and simple. I’ve heard arguments that measuring conversion rate to contact gives a higher conversion rate and makes agents feel more confident. But in my experience, conversion rate to contacts means relying on the agent’s discretion of what a sales or service call is, and doesn’t lead to robust results. The best way to manage this is to have an IVR or software decide. If you benchmark conversion rate to leads, then there is full transparency.
The fashion is better, the data is better, and the understanding of customer needs has become richer and more nuanced. But when it comes to the things that matter, the basics have stayed the same. Focus on the customer, train your people, and treat them right.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on cold calling compared to inbound leads. Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.