During my time as a Dale Carnegie instructor, I’ve had the opportunity to address questions about building a solid contact network for business professionals. Many questions came from salespeople who, in their cold calling campaigns, wanted a method for building their contact network without sounding too “salesy”.

In general, salespeople wanted to know:

  1. Standard methods for connecting with a prospect.
  2. The number of times they could call a prospect before becoming a nuisance.
  3. How much time to let pass before calling a prospect again.
  4. The number of times they should call a prospect before moving on.

Here’s what I came away with. First, salespeople want a standard cold calling procedure that yields repeatable results. Now, there are no right or wrong ways to execute a cold calling campaign. But you’ll find some methods more effective than others, depending on your environment, skill level, and targets.

Second, sales reps are focusing on one entry vector into a company and not on building their contact network. They identify one contact in the company, and when they have that one person, they focus all their attention on them. Honing your communication skills will help you make better cold calls. But to be effective, expand your process to include multiple contacts. In other words, develop and nurture your contact network.

The next time you call into your target company, ask yourself if you are doing enough internal discovery work and connecting with the right people to yield multiple fruitful relationships within that organization.

Here are two examples on why building your contact network is essential.  If you’re making 100 calls a day and you are trying to sell over the phone, you will eventually encounter similar situations.

My Prospect Said Let’s Talk Next Week and Then Disappeared

There I was, calling into a company to establish a foothold.  I had inherited the company as part of an old database redistribution. After contacting all the prior users of our services, I was in full hunt mode to reach a decision-maker.

One afternoon, I hit pay dirt and reached the ops manager, Bob.  We had a brief discussion on the merits of our services and reviewed the benefits that his people had received.  In fact, Bob knew about our training and he was a big fan of our programs. After our discussion, he identified an individual to send to our communications training.  He said to me, “Now, I can finally create a career plan and get this person to the next level in their career.”

Bob had some paperwork to finish up that day and he had some other things on his mind.  He told me that he was going to be out of the office for a week to take care of some health issues, but he would be back the week after and we could begin moving the process forward.

Flush with excitement over my success, I told Bob that I would give him a call back in a week after he had taken care of his more pressing matters.

After a week and a half, I called Bob back.  Naturally, I didn’t reach him so I left a message regarding our last conversation, and waited.

I gave Bob two days before calling him again. I didn’t reach him the second time either. So I left him another message and waited for another two days for a return call, which I didn’t receive.

So, I called a third time, left a message, and this time I gave Bob a week.

Still, no return call.

I Must Have Left a Voicemail Message That Offended the Contact

I started to think that I had somehow managed to offend Bob in my past message.  So I called Bob again, asked if there was another  issue that needed resolving, and waited for another week.

Again, no return call.

I sent email, USPS mail, and followed them both with phone calls.

No contact.

After our initial conversation when he said he was ready to move forward, I spent two months using a variety of techniques to reach Bob. And I was having no luck in reaching him.

One morning, I called to leave a message and thought to myself, “Maybe I should try to reach someone else.”

So, when I got Bob’s voicemail, I hit the zero and got another worker in the building, Bill.

I asked Bill if he knew Bob and how I could get in touch with him.  Bill stuttered for a minute and then told me that Bob was in the hospital. I told Bill that I knew Bob was going into the hospital to address some health challenges but it’s been almost 2 months.  That’s when Bill told me that there were complications and Bob had slipped into a coma.  His condition was stable, but no one knew when he would wake out of the coma and be ready to leave the hospital.

Ultimately, Bob did wake out of his coma and return to work.  But between our conversation and his return to work, 52 weeks had passed.  I had lost the momentum and the opportunity.

The Decision Maker Said Call Me Back so We Can Discuss Pricing and Options

One Thursday in the spring, I was calling into a high tech company.  After some maneuvering, I managed to get the sales director on the line.  Let’s call him Bob, too.

We discussed the challenges his sales people were facing and the communication and sales skills that Bob wanted them to develop. He said he was determined to get his salespeople to the next level in their professional development.  I was having a good time, and Bob seemed genuinely excited about the possibilities.  Bob said, “Hey, I’m off to see a client with one of my people. Got to do some coaching.  Let’s talk early next week on how to proceed. How’s Monday afternoon at 2PM for you?”

I was excited.  This guy was the decision-maker, he coached his people, and he set a specific time for a follow up session.

Typically, when a high-level decision-maker says ‘call me next week’ after an encouraging discussion, they mean it. I’ve set meeting times with clients as far as 3 months in the future. When I call them back at the appointed time, they picked up the phone, notes in hand, and ready to proceed.   High-level decision-makers hold time in high regard.  If you are up front with them and respect their time, you can typically reach them when they tell you to call back.

In addition, this was a sales director and sales directors are typically extremely time conscious.  If you are going to train their sales people, they want to know that you can control the events in your own day before turning you loose on their people.

So you can imagine my surprise when I called at our scheduled time on Monday and did not reach him.

When an Unresponsive Sales Director Is Not a Test

I left Bob my best voicemail message and waited.

No response.

I called back the next day, left another message… and waited.

No response.

I waited a week and called back.  I got his voicemail and left another message.

No response.

At this point I couldn’t decide if I had said something that put him off or if this was Bob’s way of testing my sales persistence.

However, after three weeks I heard that little voice in my head say, “Maybe you should call someone else in the organization.”

So I called the main number and got the gatekeeper.

“Hi Bobby.  Hey, I’m calling for Bob the sales director.  We had a call scheduled a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t been able to reach him since.  Did Bob go on vacation?”

The gatekeeper hesitated.  Then, with a little edge in her voice, she said, “Bob had a stroke about 3 weeks ago.  Right now, he’s resting at home but I’m not sure when he’ll be back.   At this point, I don’t think the CEO even knows if he’s going to ride this out or look for a replacement.  The two of them are good friends.”

Again, an awkward situation and lost momentum in the sales process.

Recovery Is Good but Prevention Is Better

So, how do you recover when the contact that you’ve been grooming, suffers a catastrophic personal incident?

Well, common wisdom suggests that you find someone else in the organization and begin to re-establish yourself.  However, in doing so, you will appear extremely callous.  Your main contact has just suffered some type of major personal injury and your response is, “Sorry to hear that.  Whom else in the organization should I speak with to move the sale forward?”   Sales people already have a reputation for being somewhat cold, ruthless and uncaring when it comes to business.  The optics on this method are ugly.

Can you salvage the situation?  Sure, nothing is impossible.  But you will need to use all of your communication skills, personal tact, and diplomacy to navigate the situation.

I would suggest an alternate strategy.  Make contact with other stake holders within the organization and leveraging those contacts throughout the sales process. By doing so, you can avoid most of the  unpleasantness should a medical emergency strike your main point of contact.

4 Ideas for Building Your Contact Network

Here are four suggestions for building a contact network within your target organization:

  1. Contact Several People

    When you identify your target company, identify several contacts within the organization and contact them. When you research your organization, identify several prospective contacts and mine them all, not just the one that looks good. However, keep in mind if your contacts have the ability and the authority to buy. If you’re talking with someone who doesn’t fit the bill, use your communication skills to get them to identify someone who has purchasing authority.

  2. Understand Their Decision Process

    When you call your contact, ask questions about the decision making process. In particular, you should identify the other stake-holders involved and how to contact them.  Get them into the conversation as quickly as possible.

  3. Explore Other Company Divisions

    When you reach your contact, ask them if there are other divisions that could use your services or products. Naturally, you will want to get the names and extensions of their counterparts in these other divisions.

  4. Leverage Gatekeeper Knowledge and Insights

    Leverage your gatekeepers. Most sales reps play the game of ‘get past the gatekeeper’.  However, if you have the support of the administrative assistant, they can help you navigate the organization and feed you relevant information about company events.

In his book Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, Harvey Mackay suggests you create your network before you need it. That way it will be there when you do need it.  As Mackay puts it,  “3:00 AM is a lousy time to make friends.”

This goes for your contact network within a company as well. Develop your contact network within the company before those unforeseen emergencies arise.  Then, regardless if your contact goes on a two-week vacation or experiences a major medical emergency, you can empathize with the situation while maintaining your connection within the company.

Remember, you’ll find it easier to navigate these situations if you’re part of the team and not an outsider trying to break in.

Good selling.