Cold calling sucks, and your team is probably looking for ways to make it more bearable.
Save yourself and your team some time by focusing on the area of highest impact: the first few seconds. With a good opening line, your reps buy another 30 seconds of conversation time.
When your reps are confident in their strategies for getting over that hump and “in the door,” the rest of the call is not only a lot more fruitful but also a lot less sucky.
That’s why we’ve compiled the best cold calling opening lines, according to three leading experts loved in the sales community: John Barrows, Josh Braun, and Chris Voss.
This guide will help you and your team contextualize their advice, apply it for greater conversion rates, and begin to improve your reps’ mentalities about cold calling.
What is a cold opener?
Your team’s cold call opener is more than a few words; it’s a set of phrases and questions your reps will use within the first few seconds after a prospect picks up the phone.
The three essential questions you need to address in a cold call opening are:
- Greeting: Who are you?
- Purpose: Why are you calling?
- Hook: Why should the prospect care?
Your reps only have a few seconds to get your prospect’s attention and sell the value of the call, so it’s a good idea to prep them with a few ideas.
Then, if they do capture their attention, the goal is not to sell a product or service. Reps are selling time, keeping a prospect’s interest long enough to share more.
Greeting: Successful cold callers sound human, not salesy
In the first few seconds of the greeting, reps face the impossible task of being a salesperson, while avoiding sounding like the six other sales people that have cold called this VP today.
Josh Braun, the Founder of Sales DNA, warns that, if they sound like a salesperson in those first few seconds (even though that’s exactly what they are), prospects tend to shut down. So the first few words and phrases, though few in number, have to count.
Remember that sales is, fundamentally, about human beings connecting with each other. That connection consists of an equal evaluation: can one person help the other, in exchange for something equally beneficial?
And, as a human, each of your reps (and the brand you’re selling) has a unique personality. So as critical as it is to study best practices, and test the living daylights out of every recommendation or tip you hear, it’s just as important to do so in a way that is genuine, not only to your reps but also to your product.
Prime the prospect for the rest of the call
Most agree that the opening should begin with a warm, personal greeting.Three of the leading (and hotly-debated!) strategies for the next step are:
- Asking about the other person’s well-being. (“Hi Gillie. How’ve you been?”)
- Thanking them for their time. (“Hi Jordan. Thank you for taking my call.”)
- Introducing yourself. (“Hi, this is Dane calling. Am I speaking to Josh?”)
All three of these will engage the prospect. We suggest sales reps try all of them and see which ones feel most comfortable. Chances are, you, and each of your reps, already has a strong reaction to one or more of them.
Should I really ask, “how’ve you been?” on a cold call?
The three most controversial words in sales may be “How are you?”
Josh Braun considers generic openers, including questions like this one, “deadly.” His reasoning: reps have to stand out to get a prospect’s attention.
The other common critique of this opener is that it’s disingenuous. John Barrows hates being asked how he’s doing, “because I know they don’t care.”
His take is that it’s intended as an attempt to build rapport, but it is often more of an annoyance. He suggests thanking the prospect for taking the call and then getting right to the point.
This opinion is widely held among salespeople, who typically cringe when they hear reps (whether their own or those trying to prospect them) ask variations of “how are you?”
Okay, but what does the data say?
But the data paints a different picture. Call data from Gong reveals that the specific opener “how’ve you been” gets a 3.4X higher chance of booking a meeting than if it’s not asked.
Importantly, it’s this variant that performs so well because it does two things:
- It’s a disarming and familiar greeting, AND
- It’s an unexpected twist on the typical “how are you?” question.
Maybe the decades of sales managers telling reps “never ask how your prospect is doing; just get straight to the point” has primed prospects to be curious when they hear this taboo sales greeting.
Why some salespeople will go against the data
Despite the data suggesting it’s effective, none of the three experts we studied for this article suggest asking how a prospect has been.
This points to a difficulty of the sales profession. Most salespeople have inherent biases and favorite tactics. The path to a successful sales career is to balance data or experience-driven tactics with innovation.
Salespeople want to be both:
Data-driven: We follow what’s been shown to work to get “predictable results”
Innovative: We value risking failure by trying something new with the prize of “breaking through” the noise
This is a paradox that requires reps to consult the data while also not being afraid to put their own spin on something and learn what works best for each of them.
The worst thing a rep could do would be to think too hard on this one. They should do their research, pick up the phone, and try to make a connection with someone who can benefit from your company’s product or service.
Purpose: Avoid common objections by interrupting the frame
Following the greeting, most experts agree that reps should either immediately state their purpose for calling, ask for permission to continue talking, or do both.
How to structure the first ask
This step in a cold call opener is so important because, now that the prospect knows they’re an active participant in an unexpected call, they are probably going to try to get off the phone.
Here’s what the experts say:
This is a pattern interrupter. It works for some because it’s not what a salesperson will typically say on the phone.
This line helps reps get straight to the point and make the call purposeful for the prospect. It’s also a good test because, if reps can’t finish this sentence clearly and concisely, they’re not ready to call prospects yet.
This is an example of a “no-oriented” question. Getting to a quick “no” will help the prospect feel that they aren’t committing to anything significant by continuing the conversation, which will make them more open to listening.
Note: While experts recommend it, we suggest testing this with your own reps. Gong’s research has found that this question performs much lower than the baseline.
Why this part of the cold call is so critical
When a rep has gotten this far, and the prospect responds with openness, then it’s time to share another question, piece of information, or brief pitch to hook them and earn their continued attention.
This juncture is also where we’ll dive into how the three experts suggest framing the rest of the cold call, regardless of which of the above techniques got you to this point.
Hook: How to frame your cold call
Expert One: Chris Voss says get to a quick “no”
Voss prefers using no-oriented, open-ended questions as the foundation of his cold calling strategy.
Even if the line “is now a bad time”? isn’t the preferred opener, his philosophy might help reps structure their calls once the prospect begins to interact. Here’s what that might look like:
Instead of saying: “Are you free next Wednesday at 2pm?”
Say: “Is it out of the question to schedule a time with you next week?”
Instead of saying: “Are you currently looking for solutions for X?”
Say: “Are you opposed to exploring solutions for X right now?”
Instead of saying: “Is your team using Salesforce?”
Say: “In researching your company, I found out you’re using Salesforce. Am I wrong?”
Voss developed his understanding of sales and negotiation as an FBI hostage negotiator, where he learned that empowering the other person leads to better outcomes.
Reframing typical questions in a way that will inspire a “no,” rather than a “yes,” allows the other person to feel like they have some control and are, thus, safe to respond to the question.
As they do, they will likely share context, which reps would have not otherwise learned. That information will likely become the key to collaborative solutions and, ultimately, closing the deal.
Expert Two: Josh Braun wants reps to poke the bear
Josh Braun is an advocate for standing out, which means that he’s one of the least likely people to give out a universal line to start all cold calls. Instead, his major insight (which is a lot more adaptable) is for reps to focus on finding their own “disruptive opener.”
He explains that outbound salespeople use a lot of the same tactics. The way to truly pique interest and start a meaningful conversation is to catch the prospect off-guard by saying something completely unexpected.
His favorite questions “poke the bear” or help to show the cost of inactivity. A poke-the-bear question hits at a pain point in a way that the prospect won’t be expecting; it prompts them to think critically and consider whether they feel a sense of urgency about solving that problem.
(Pro tip: Avoid poking an actual bear. They’re unlikely to be a good prospect for any B2B offering except for, maybe, wholesale fish products.)
If a rep succeeds in creating urgency, then they’re probably going to get the meeting. If not, then the call is still a success: the rep has determined whether a prospect is a good fit.
Instead of saying: “Is this a problem you’re looking to solve right now?”
Say: “I don’t suppose that’s a problem for you guys, right? You’re good. You’re crushing it. I should just hang up right now.” [This was taken directly from his site].
Another approach is to state a problem, found through research, the prospect has. Then, reps should ask a multiple-choice question about how they’re solving it today. Typically, the last option given is one your company can help them with.
This leads them to consider all of those options and realize that there is, likely, a better way to address the issue. Here’s what that looks like in action:
Instead of saying: “Typically, when I speak to sales leaders like you, they’re interested in getting more meetings. Are you looking to get more meetings?”
Say: “I noticed you’re using a sales execution platform, and I’m curious whether you’re managing your A/B testing protocol, whether you lean on your sales enablement manager, or whether you’re delegating that to your reps.”
Expert Three: John Barrows is sick of weak introductions
John Barrows is not a fan of weak introductions. Don’t ask how a prospect is doing, don’t ask them for permission to pitch, and for goodness sake, never apologize for interrupting someone’s day.
Instead, he focuses on thanking prospects for their time before leading directly into the reason for his call. From his perspective, if a rep can’t clearly articulate the reason for the call, then they shouldn’t dial.
John isn’t as concerned as our other featured experts are about adding a twist; he’s focused on courteously and clearly starting a conversation with a defined purpose. He wants his prospects to understand, from the start, the reason he has called them.
Here’s an example of what that looks like in action:
Instead of saying: “Hi, Shane. I’m Erika with Greaser Consulting. Sorry for calling out of the blue, do you have 30 seconds to talk to me?”
Say: “Hi Shane, thanks for taking my call. The reason I’m calling is because I noticed you’re hiring SDRs, and I was hoping you could give me 30 seconds to tell you how we help cut SDR onboarding time in half.”
Instead of saying: “Hi Leah, how are you? I’m Rolando with Greaser Consulting.”
Say: “Hi Leah, thank you for taking my call. I’m calling because I’m hoping you can help me out. Do you have a moment?”
Building a cold calling script for your team
When it comes to cold calling, we know it’s both an art and a science. What works well for one of your reps might not work for others. So, keep an open mind and try new things until you lead all of your reps to finding their groove.
This isn’t about stabbing around in the dark, either; you can and should get scientific with it. As a manager, here is your checklist.
- Try out what you think will work (use examples from this article)
- Track your results
- Adjust accordingly
- Build scripts based on the data from your context
The beauty of the disagreements in the sales community is that they show there is not one perfect way to open a cold call. There are many respectable, effective methods that, for the right seller in the proper context, are sales gold.
If you’re in the middle of this process right now, check out our cold calling ebook.