In June 2010, I quit my job as a school counselor in Thailand, moved back to the States, and started my own freelance writing business.
Looking back, it was probably a stupid thing to do.
I had no clips and no pro writing credits. I couldn’t really fall back on my education — my degrees were in geology and school counseling. And having lived in Asia for six years, I knew next to no one stateside that I could hit up for writing work.
I came up with the idea to cold call while reading Peter Bowerman’s book, The Well-Fed Writer. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege to read his awesome body of work, Peter built his business through cold calling.
Tips & Lessons for Cold Calling as a Freelancer
1. Anyone can do this
When it comes to marketing and self-promotion, sorry, but there’s no way you’re more clueless at this than I am. You don’t need a ton of experience. You don’t need amazing sales skills. You don’t need a polished phone voice. (Seriously. Mine is this horrible combination of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and redneck. Yes, the people I cold call actually giggle sometimes.) You just need a plan — and the motivation to stick to it.
2. Write a simple script
Here’s what I said on the phone:
“Hi, my name is (insert name here), and I’m a freelance copywriter based in (city). I was doing some research on your company, and I’m wondering if you ever hire freelance writers to help with ______.”
Don’t fill this with drama – it’s very short and straightforward. Their response will shape the remainder of the exchange (don’t think of this as a conversation – this is much briefer).
This is hard the first few times. In fact, I spent an entire session with my coach on speaker-phone while I called prospects on my landline. I figured once they yelled at me, I could say “I told you so” and be done with the whole mess.
But they never yelled. Not once. No one even expressed impatience.
3. Be persistent
I called for two months before I landed an assignment in my acceptable pay range. I got a few nibbles, mostly from prospects who ran the other direction when they found out I wasn’t going to crank out dozens of 800-word articles for $5 a pop. Don’t let this stop you. Call each day until you reach your goal. As Peter Bowerman says — it’s about effort, not results.
4. They want to hear from you
I’ve found that people are surprisingly open to cold calling. After all, you’re selling a valuable service, and you’re saving them the potential hassle of shopping around for it. In those 400+ calls, I’ve had only one person get really grumpy with me. (He worked at two nonprofits and I called both. Who knew.) However, I had a handful of prospects who picked up the phone and acted like they had been sitting around all year waiting for a writer to call.
5. Set your minimum hourly rate — and stick to it
Because I was looking to grow my business, I tended to be unrealistically lenient about rates during my initial cold-call campaign. Not only does this lead to resentment and aggravation, it takes up time that could be spent securing better-paying work. So before you take on a client for peanuts, consider the risks. If you settle into a regular relationship, are you willing to continue at this wage? Also, think about the precedent you’re setting for other freelancers with whom this prospect may work in the future.
6. Think long term
Getting a client immediately is not the point of cold calling. The goal is to save a lot of time and energy targeting the wrong prospects, and to send the right information to the right person.
Before starting to cold call, I used to spend 3-4 hours a week attending networking events. Now, I can spend half that time, reach more prospects, and work directly from my office without getting dressed up!
My conversion rate from initial call to client work over the years has been about 3-4 percent, and the typical lead time from call to project is about 2-3 months. I get similar results through networking, but have found calling to be a huge time saver.
The rates I’ve gotten through cold calling varied depending on who I was targeting, but range from $45 to $150 per hour. (Those that paid $150 per hour didn’t know they were paying that much, as I almost always quote a project fee.) Agencies tend to pay on the lower end, but the payoff with them is more steady work.
Most prospects asked about my rates, and I chose to send them my rate sheet. Why? Because there is a minimum I won’t go under ($45/hour), it outlines a lot of services I provide, and it only offers ranges of prices. There’s no point in wasting time with a company that doesn’t pay my rate.
In fact, cold calling is the most efficient method of prospecting I’ve done. It immediately prunes the noes and provides a follow up plan for the maybes.
My tip? Welcome those who say “no”–they’re saving you a lot of wasted energy.
7. Follow up
As you’re making your initial round of cold calls, keep track of your contacts in a spreadsheet. Whenever you find someone especially receptive, highlight that name. About once a month, go back and touch base and let them know you’re accepting new projects. I actually did my first round of follow-ups last week and immediately grabbed a plum little project and two client meetings that I hope will lead to more.
8. Measure your cold calling results
Once I got into a groove, it became much easier. I’m able to reach out to many more prospects, and it feels much more real to speak with someone in person.
Most of my cold calling efforts were directed toward creative agencies of fewer than 25 employees, but the initial results were similar regardless of the size of company.
The beauty of cold calling is you can target your prospect. Even though I was mostly researching medium-sized creative agencies, I also spent time calling speakers, designers, and other niche markets I wanted to work with.
I keep track of the results of my prospecting, and after about 200 calls, I compiled the following data:
Out of that first batch of prospects, 79 percent said they weren’t looking for a writer at that time. That’s to be expected – very rarely is anyone looking for a writer right when you call. So be prepared with a follow-up question:
“I understand. Would you mind if I followed up in the future?”
I’ve tried asking, “Can I send you some information?”, but I get a much more positive response when I leave it more open. Few people decline outright.
About 20 percent requested information. The key is sending the info to the right place. Make sure to get a name and email.
If you’re targeting larger companies, most of the time you’ll either be referred to a higher up, where you’ll repeat the script, or you’ll be asked to send a resume and portfolio. Before they mention the black hole of human resources, ask: “OK great–what’s the name of your marketing director?” Get that name before you get off the phone!
One to two percent of your prospects will say they do need someone right away, but I don’t consider these calls a win. Honestly, who chooses a freelancer from a cold call?