How to Effectively Cold Call

Aug 16, 2010

Evolution of Cold Calling & Recruiting

Cold calling came about as a way to find and close new clients. Given leads, a “real” salesperson needed to be able to call on prospective customers to sell a product or service. These prospective customers were not expecting the call. Hence, the term “cold call” ensued. For a powerful depiction of cold calling, watch the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

During the early days of recruiting, technology was nonexistent. There were no faxes, computers, databases, Internet, social networking, applicant tracking systems (ATS), webcamming and mobile and cloud technology. The only tools were the Rolodex, file cabinet, telephone, physical transportation and advertising (newspaper, TV, radio).  Recruiters developed leads through incoming resumes from advertising, referrals and networking at job fairs, user groups, and other venues.  Many recruiters were already cold calling clients. When they could not find candidates through the usual methods, they easily turned to cold calling into companies to find candidates.

The Best Choice

Yesterday’s scenario was much different. There was good reason to cold call. Resumes were limited and mail could be slow. Networking and searching was cumbersome and often had to be done in person. Advertising was expensive and did not always result in the best matches possible. Being able to call into a company and pull out a targeted passive candidate saved time and money and often resulted in superior matches.

To be truly effective in today’s sophisticated market, one needs to be able to determine if cold calling is the best choice. Asking and answering the following five questions have helped me to determine whether or not to cold call.

  • What does the client want? Listening to the client’s needs is vital. Did they need this individual yesterday or are they shopping around? Does the client want a purple squirrel or an easy to find active candidate? Do they care if the candidate is passive or active or if they blend in with the corporate culture? Are they considering only local candidates or are they willing to consider candidates from other areas of the country or even internationally? What experience and skill level does this position require? How long has the position been open?
  • When do I decide to cold call? Pipeline shortages or difficulty finding candidates through Internet sourcing or other alternate means are good reasons.
  • Why should I consider cold calling into a company at all when I have other sources? If I can quickly find high quality, well matched candidates in a targeted less costly fashion than my competition, I can close the sale, win over the client and help build trust.
  • Where should I look? This question is answered by asking, “If I were a  ___________ (fill in with whatever you are searching for), where would I be?” Answering this question helps me to scope out my candidate to determine if candidates are readily available through other avenues.
  • How do I determine whether cold calling is worth it? Like any other project, I need to consider ROI (Return on Investment) and ROE (Return on Effectiveness). What are my metrics telling me? Are my time to hire and turnover ratio too high and my quality of hire too low? Am I spending too much money and time on job boards and advertising and other methods and still not hitting my target?

Answering these questions gives me a clearer picture of whether or not to cold call and, if I do, the best way to proceed.

Researching my Target

Once I decide cold calling is the best choice, I do some legwork to develop my target before calling. This includes:

  • Learning and understanding more about the position and candidate I am recruiting. This may mean understanding a specific profile or mindset, including personality (introverted/extroverted), skill set, habits and interests.
  • Finding out at which companies these prospective candidates work by talking to the hiring manager, looking at matching employee or candidate resumes, and using sources such as Hoovers. I make sure that these companies are not on my client list to avoid any conflict of interest. If they are my competition’s clients, that is even better.
  • Researching these companies to understand the structure, tools/skill sets used, culture, and economic stability. I especially like to see if my client is offering something that the prospective candidate’s company does not. This gives me the ammo I need to go in and close the deal.
  • Collecting corporate/candidate phone numbers and emails. Before I can call into a company, I need the main corporate phone number at least. Employee or prospective candidate phone numbers are even better. Emails make great electronic introductory calling cards.

Now that I have done my homework, I am ready to get started.

Getting Started

The first call is always the hardest. My heart races and my brain freezes. Then I think to myself, “This is just the telephone. I can always hang up. I can block my number. I have been through much scarier situations in my life.” So having calmed myself, I pick up the phone and dial.

The receptionist asks whom I am trying to reach. If I do not know the name from my research, I will confidently ask for the department.

The Discovery Process

In the worst-case scenario, the receptionist or gatekeeper demands a name, wants to know whom I am with, and/or why I am calling. I feel the adrenaline running through my veins. Depending on the search, I will tell her that I am calling about a (i.e. accounting/technical/personal) matter and that it is imperative that I talk with someone as soon as possible. In a self-assured tone, I ask the gatekeeper informational questions and even politely chitchat. I let them know I am not there to sell anything. I am never impolite or confrontational. The gatekeeper is in a position of power and I let them know I understand this. Disappointedly, sometimes even my initial efforts do not get me past the gatekeeper and I resort to other tactics. Since getting past the gatekeeper is such a large part of cold calling, I have set aside a whole section to discuss it.

In the best-case scenario, the receptionist politely transfers me to the department at which time I get either voice mail or a person. What is great about voice mail is that the greeting often contains information, such as names, extensions, and title of the greeter and alternate contacts. This means I can collect more information with each subsequent call. If I get a person, I ask them who handles the specific skill set I am looking for in my candidate (without mentioning the word candidate). During this discovery process, I find that s/he is the target or the employee provides a contact name and/or transfers me to my target candidate.

Closing the Deal

After I get hold of the targeted prospective candidate, I ask a question or two about his or her job duties to confirm that s/he is the targeted candidate.  Then I introduce myself and tell them I have a client with a wonderful opportunity if they know of anyone who might be interested. In the same breath, I mention that I can call them later if this is not a good time. Usually they talk to me, provide me with their phone number and time to call, or offer a referral.

When I do discuss the position with the target candidate, I am ready. Having done my research, I know what opportunities my client has to win him or her over and I subtlety mention these during the conversation. At the same time, I ask questions to emphasize what the candidate’s current position lacks. Usually, my candidate is interested in the opportunity, sends me a resume, and gets an interview with the client. The client is impressed with my catch and makes an offer. The candidate accepts and I close the deal.

Getting Past the Gatekeeper & Other Tactics

Historically, tough gatekeepers were a standard. Luckily, with Internet sourcing so common today, corporate phone defenses are way down and a harsh gatekeeper is an exception. Earlier I mentioned that once in awhile I come across a fierce gatekeeper. When this happens, I will:

  • Call back at a different time of day. Even gatekeepers have to take lunch and work set hours. The lunchtime replacement is usually another office employee and is not experienced at filtering the calls. Calling early is great to get hold of executive level candidates before their executive assistants arrive. Calling at night has its advantages as well. Sometimes I reach a bored night/security guard who is willing to disperse company directory information in exchange for social interaction.  Other times I get an Automated Response Unit (ARU). Being able to dial by name and extension combined with informational voice mail greetings are like hitting gold.
  • Ask for a different department than where the targeted candidate is located. Sometimes for example, I might ask for Accounting when I am actually looking for my candidate in Information Technology. That way Accounting will access the directory for me whereas the gatekeeper would not.
  • Use old research information and ask for a past employee with a specific title. When they tell me that person is no longer in that position, I ask who has replaced them.
  • Inspire urgency. This gives the gatekeeper less time to ask questions and more time to focus on the job at hand.
  • Find out if the company is laying off employees. If so, I will tell the receptionist that I heard that the company is laying off employees and I am calling to see if I can help those employees.


Cold calling is a great way to stand out from the crowd and to do quick targeted recruiting. It can be fun and invigorating and it can help move people around so that they are working in the right jobs for the right companies.

It can also be a slippery slope regarding ethical and legal boundaries. Building an honest reputation and good work ethic is extremely important and that is why I have not included any rusing or other questionable tactics.

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