The lost art of telephone sales

Calling a journalist with a pitch could be a make-or-break moment for you and your client.

Credit: MOVIESTORE/REX
Credit: MOVIESTORE/REX

In Martin Scorsese’s brilliant black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street, there is a scene where the film’s antihero Jordan Belfort gives a masterclass in using the telephone.

Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is setting up a ‘pump-and-dump’ scheme flogging worthless penny shares. He recruits a crew of gormless sociopaths as his sales force and he needs to show them how to sell.

So he dials a complete stranger and first engages him, then charms him. He wins his trust, fires up his greed and after a couple of minutes, sells him $10,000 (about £6,000) worth of shares – all the while giving him the finger and mouthing "f*** you," down the phone.

In real life Belfort went on to make a (fraudulent) $200m (£118m) fortune, demonstrating that in the right hands there is virtually no limit to the power of the phone as a business tool.

It is certainly true in PR. The call to journalists is what you might term a moment of truth in the PR process. It is the point at which months of strategy development, weeks of planning and moments of brilliant creative insight stand or fall.

If it goes well, it can secure priceless coverage for your client. If it goes badly it can consign the client’s campaign to the dustbin – along with your employer’s fortunes and maybe your career

Yet if the experience of many journalists is anything to go by, the power and importance of the phone is something many PRs seem to have forgotten – or never learned in the first place.

"Every day I fume at the astonishingly poor quality of telephone pitches I get," is a fairly typical lament from one senior Fleet Street journalist.

"They call at the wrong time, they get my name wrong, they have often clearly never read my section, and worst of all they can’t talk interestingly about their story and don’t seem to know the answer to even basic questions. I just don’t get it. Presumably it’s important to them, yet some do it so badly."

There is a general assumption that some people can sell using the phone, some cannot. End of. But according to Belfort, who now runs seminars on the subject, almost anyone can improve their hit rate by mastering a few simple techniques.

In an echo of the journalist’s complaint about PRs’ "failure to know their subject", Belfort says the single most important thing in any situation where you are trying to sell or persuade is what he calls "establishing mastery".

"People buy on emotion, not logic. They buy you first, then your product," he said in a sales training webinar last month. "We want to do business with an expert… but you have just four seconds in a phone call to show that you are sharp, enthusiastic and knowledgeable in your field,"he warned.

You project this feeling of expertise partly through the energy you put into the conversation, partly through what he calls "tonality" and partly by knowing your subject and being able to talk about it in a lively, knowledgeable and interesting way.

Belfort may be a convicted fraudster with a track record of substance abuse, but he seems to have a point, says California-based psychologist Pamela Rutledge, chair of Division 46 of the American Psychological Association, which studies the intersection of technology and psychology.

"In the film we saw someone who is able to project their energy or human presence over the phone. That is a hard thing to do," she says. But there is a huge reward awaiting you if you can pull it off.

"Social connection is incredibly important to the human brain. One of the weaknesses of the phone is that you have to work hard to overcome the feeling that you are interrupting someone. But once you’ve done that, you can trigger a whole host of social behaviours in the receiver."

These behaviours, such as a sense of obligation and exchange, doing what everyone else does and loss aversion are not inevitable, but they are so powerful that we have to consciously resist them.

The upshot is that a message delivered verbally is far more likely to be believed than an email or a press release.

It is tempting to think that you can project your "energy or human presence" simply by bluster and charm.

But that, Belfort says, "will immediately mark you out as a salesman, as a bullshitter – and everyone hates a bullshitter".

Communications skills coach Nick Fitzherbert suspects the problem is partly generational:  "Younger people seem to be developing a fear of the phone – they prefer to stay behind the protective barrier offered by email and text."

The particular strength of the phone is its ability to establish a two-way dialogue and even create a relationship, he says.

"The irony is of course that the sheer volume of emails means that despite its immediacy, email is becoming an ineffective way of reaching busy people."

But when PR people do finally pick up the phone, the main mistake is lack of basic preparation, says Alex Singleton, PR  strategist and author of The PR Masterclass.

"Too often they approach it like a PPI mis-selling call, with no knowledge of the person they are ringing.

But if you are prepared, it gives you confidence and inspires confidence in the person you are calling."

So first make sure the story you are pitching is of reasonable quality and suited to the publication. "There is no point pitching a bad story," says Singleton.

"Bad stories are dangerous – they eat up the credibility of you and your clients. And Google now filters stories. You can find yourself blocked."

But a story is only good if it is relevant not only to the publication, but to the section in the publication to which you are pitching. A common error is to try to puff up a weak story with spurious topicality.

Now condense the story into one pithy sentence of no more than 25 words.

Journalists often do not have the time or inclination to have a long, waffly conversation.

Singleton suggests taking a few minutes before a call to research articles the journalist has written and to take a look at their tweets and LinkedIn entries.

"Never cold call or call a news desk. You are better off pitching to specialist writers who know their subject," he says.

As in any other area of life, timing is everything. "The more time you leave the journalist, the easier it is for them to get the story in," says Singleton.

So it is useful to find out the best time to pitch both during the course of the day and during the course of the title’s production cycle.

So if you want to pitch a Friday for Monday story in a daily, Wednesday or Thursday is the best time. If you want to pitch to a Sunday, Tuesday is the best day.

Most of all, he advises "treat them as a peer". It is the same argument made by Belfort about "establishing mastery" and Rutledge’s point when she talks of "triggering a host of social behaviours". It really works. You should try it.

A guide to using the phone as a selling tool, by Nick Fitzherbert

  • Think about the name of the person you are calling before picking up the receiver – you are not going to engage the person you are calling if you pronounce their name wrong.
  • In presentations, ‘firsts and lasts’ are the most important elements because people remember them. So engage the person you are calling upfront and wrap up with a call to action. Your opening and closing need to be carefully planned, if not actually scripted.
  • Speak with a smile on your face – it raises the level and tone of the conversation. You can take this further by standing up to make a call – this raises energy levels and enables you to both breathe more deeply and use gestures that can’t be seen but will add impact.
  • Business communicators often talk around the subject rather than get to the point. Talk in headlines or what Hollywood calls ‘high concept’ ("Snakes on a plane" or "Giant shark terrorises holiday resort", for example ) so the other person gets your subject immediately.
  • Observe basic courtesies, but focus on establishing whether the other person has a moment to speak rather than asking if they are having a good day.
  • Forget about titles and politics. Not:  "Hello, may I introduce myself.  My name is Jill and I am an account manager at Jolly PR on the Haymarket account."  Say: "Hello, this is Jill Smith calling for Haymarket."  Then: "Have you got a couple of minutes?" Then the elevator pitch. Then you can relax into a conversation or get off the line.
  • If the person you are calling starts to speak, listen; they are interested enough to start a conversation, so don’t plough on with spiel.
  • Think carefully about a suitable time to make your call.  Put yourself in their shoes and consider how they will feel about receiving your call at that time.

Nick Fitzherbert is a communications skills coach and former PR consultant; he is author of Presentation Magic, published by Marshall Cavendish

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