What The Pursuit of Happyness Teaches Us About Cold Calling

Learn what the movie The Pursuit of Happyness can teach us about success in cold calling and sales. Start by identifying your "why".

If you’ve ever seen the Pursuit of Happyness and you’re in sales, you’ll remember the moment where Chris Gardner gets his list of prospects, skips most of them, and goes straight for the direct dial of the CEO.

Many of us are attracted to the opportunity to be in sales because it is an open frontier for someone with grit, determination, and an unwavering acceptance that failure is part of the process.

Sales is a tough profession, whether you’re trying to sell stocks or software, and the people who succeed are highly motivated. On the days when you get 100 no’s, it’s not enough to want to hit quota.

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You have to identify a much larger “why” that drives your success and keeps you dialing, long after everyone else would quit.

The 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, is one of our favorite examples of what this looks like in action.

The Real Chris Gardner

If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a quick synopsis: 

The 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, portrays Chris Gardner’s agonizing climb out of homelessness and onto Wall Street.

Today, the real Chris Gardner has a net worth of $70 million dollars, but the choices he has made along the way were not born of a desire to build wealth for its own sake. 

For anyone who has seen the film, the real motivation is obvious: his children. 

In a famous scene, he tells his son, Christopher, that he should never allow anyone to tell him he can’t do something. In his own words, Chris was determined to break “every cycle that I was born into,” and to stop those cycles from impacting his son.

Chris applied his attitude of determination to his early sales career, and we think we can all learn something about cold calling and other “unglamorous” parts of being in sales by reviewing some of Chris’s methods. 

It will give an edge to anyone who is willing to make more dials, work harder, and find more efficient ways to prospect. For those with grit, sales provides nearly endless opportunity; let’s seize it.

Sales is the pursuit of happiness

The Pursuit of Happyness is many things, but one of those is a celebration of the sales profession and what it can unlock for both individuals and their families. Chris Gardner has never apologized for building his success on sales; instead, he is proud of it, saying: 

“Salespeople are the most important people in any organization. Until a salesperson gets an order, nobody in the company has a job. The guys in production can’t produce until a salesperson sells something. The guys in compliance don’t have anything to measure until a salesperson sells something. I’ve never considered selling anything other than profession, but it’s more than that. It’s one of the highest callings that you can aspire to. Not everyone can do it.”

The dignity of sales is no less true for the starting BDR than it is for the VP. Most people begin their sales careers doing outbound work, which often includes cold calling. This is where Chris started, and it’s where he learned the lessons he still applies today.

Identify your “why”

One of the most critical lessons The Pursuit of Happyness teaches is the necessity of identifying your “why.” While visualizing success is critical, a corner office or a nice car won’t be enough motivation on the toughest days, when everyone hangs up on you or cusses you out.

The film depicts a critical moment, which really happened, when Chris sees a stockbroker pulling up in a red Ferrari. He approaches him and asks him two questions:

  1. “What do you do?”
  2. “How do you do it?”

In the brief exchange, the stockbroker explains that he’s a stockbroker, which requires skills with numbers and people. Chris mulls over this exchange, expressing that the people all around him “all looked so damned happy to me.” He wonders, “why couldn’t I look like that?”

From this point forward, Chris is determined to become a stock broker. However, the underlying reason he continues to claw, when the road to that goal becomes unimaginably difficult, is not to get his own red Ferrari. It’s his family.

While it’s important to visualize success, and know what that red Ferrari is that you’re striving for professionally, you’ve got to dig a layer deeper, identify your fundamental “why,” and keep your eyes fixed on it. 

Make that one more call for that “why.” If, along the way, you also happen to get that red Ferrari, it will mean that much more because you didn’t sacrifice your core beliefs to get there.

Chris Gardner took the practical steps below, both in the film and beyond it, which made him successful not only in chasing his professional goals (he did get a Ferrari) but also in prioritizing his why: fatherhood.

Getting to happy: Tips for success in sales

Whether you’re motivated by money, family, retiring early, or LinkedIn fame, we think you can learn a lot about success and drive from Chris Gardner. 

Cold call like your “happyness” depends on it

Chris’s big break takes place in a famous cold calling scene, when Chris boldly skips most of the names on his call sheet and goes straight for the CEO. While the outcomes are not always this memorable, cold calling, as a practice, is an essential tactic that is still alive and well today.

A lot of people want cold calling to be dead. It’s difficult, unpleasant, and repetitive, and few people enjoy it. So when they hear statistics that make cold calling seem like it’s no longer worth the effort, they’re very ready to throw in the towel. Here are two which are commonly cited:

  • About 1-2% of cold calls lead to a meeting or sale.
  • It takes an average of 18 dials to connect with a prospect.

However, the unpopular truth is that cold calling is still an essential part of a diversified outbound sales strategy. And, because some are abandoning it for arguably easier tactics, it’s a differentiator that can help you get and stay ahead of your competitors. 

Those salespeople who aren’t afraid to pick up the phone are very likely to outperform those who are not. 

Over half of C-level, VP, and director-level leaders prefer to be contacted by phone, so those willing to call (like Chris Gardner) are more likely to connect with decision-makers through their preferred channel.

If you want to break through and get ahead, then pick up the phone. Call one more contact at the target account you’re looking to break into and follow up until you get an answer. If you do get that meeting, it could be the one that changes everything.

Accomplish more with less time

In the same scene, Chris explains his time-saving tactics to match the output of his colleagues, who have more available working hours than he does. He’s learned to save eight minutes per day by not hanging up the phone between calls, and even more by not drinking water. 

Today, sales is dominated by automation tools, which offer countless opportunities to save time and scale productive tasks. Sales execution platforms (SEPs) allow sales teams to massively increase the number of prospects they contact without necessarily sacrificing quality of communication.

SEPs automate task management, include dialer services that ring a prospect with one click, send fully-populated emails automatically, prompt you to personalize partially-written emails, centralize reporting on activity and performance, and allow for significant opportunities to experiment with and test sales content and strategies. 

According to Forbes, these capabilities mean that sales reps can “process 50 leads per hour instead of five, all without making sacrifices on their quality of work.” As a result, here are some average outcomes, as compiled by G2:

  • +15% more meetings
  • +27% replies
  • +46% opens

If your team has a sales execution platform, then you should be seeing similar results. If you aren’t significantly improving productivity by cutting down on manual tasks which can easily be automated, then we’re happy to sit down with your team and help determine why. This way, you don’t have to be like Chris; you can grab a drink of water between calls. 

Numbers + strategy = results

In the film, Chris and the other interns have a specific call target to hit each day, and they call through huge lists of prospects–at all levels of a company — to try to get a connection with someone. As we discussed above, he famously skips to the top of the list, calls the CEO, and gets a meeting. While it makes for great television, it doesn’t always work this way.

This highlights an ongoing debate, which this Saleshacker piece summarizes well, on whether your cold calling strategy should focus more on quality or quantity. In an interview, Chris explained that, “back when I started in sales, it was a numbers game. You made x number of calls, landed x number of prospects, and won x number of customers.”

He went on to reflect that, “What’s more important today is being able to develop a strong relationship, which might involve 100 calls to the same person — creating a relationship and nurturing that relationship to add value. It’s a lot of work, but when it pays off, you can win big time.”

Notice that he isn’t saying to make fewer calls; he’s emphasizing the necessity of calling the right people. His advice is, if you’re in sales, to “sell something you believe in. And that means making sure you’re selling the right thing to the right person.”

This takes hard work. Rather than blindly calling through a massive list of prospects about whom you know very little, it’s better to clearly define the qualities, pain points, and decision-making power that qualifies a prospect for your good or service. Once you know who you can help, and how you can help them, you can come up with an intelligent prospect list with a higher likelihood of success.

However, numbers are still important; you have to reach out to a large number of contacts, often many times, to hit your goals. According to the Brevet Group, it takes eight calls to reach a prospect. And, if it’s true that only 1% to 2% of calls result in a meeting, that means you will be making a lot of calls.

Here’s another place where the gritty sales reps stand out from the crowd. While reps may know they need to make this many calls, and even have them built into their sales execution platforms, a lot of people stop short of hitting that number. In fact, when emails or phone calls are ignored, 44% of salespeople give up after just one follow-up. If you want to stand out and close more meetings, the message here is two-fold:

  • A lot of sales reps are willing to do the more glamorous tasks that will lead to glory, like going after a really visible account or leader, but those who establish habits of repeating the same gritty, difficult work will create a sustainable pipeline. Don’t quit just because nobody’s watching.
  • If you have a task to make a call, or you see that a prospect is highly-engaged, reading your emails and interacting with your content, then pick up the phone. Make that one more call, and you’ll develop habits that will keep you ahead of the game.

Be a human being

The Pursuit of Happyness also demonstrates a key lesson in empathy; you never know what someone else may be living through. His fellow interns, supervisors, and prospects had no idea that Chris was sleeping in homeless shelters and bathrooms at public transit stations. He was performing well professionally, even when his personal life was unimaginably difficult.

When you place a cold call, never forget that the person on the other end of the phone is a human being. If they hang up on you, or respond rudely, it likely has nothing to do with you. They may be having one of the toughest days of their lives, and you’ve called in the center of the storm. 

The opposite, of course, is true. If you’re ever on the end of a cold call, don’t give into the temptation to treat that person with irritation and hostility. They’re just a person doing a job to earn a paycheck. Basic kindness goes a long way.

Lastly, Chris’s example shows us another lesson in humanity. He is himself, in all scenarios. In paint-covered overalls, standing in front of a panel of executives, he was himself. When cold calling doormen and gatekeepers, he was himself. And, ultimately, in high-stakes networking settings, like the football game when he met many of his future clients, he was himself.

Those who are successful in sales are not playing a role; they are bringing the best of themselves into the sales environment. A genuine interaction, which begins an authentic relationship, is the key to building trust not only between yourself and your clients, but also with the brand you represent.

Seize your “Rubix Cube moment”

Though it was an example of creative license, one of the movie’s most engaging scenes is when Chris sees Jay Twistle, a partner at Dean Witter Reynolds (the company with which he’s trying to get an internship), on the street. He has already submitted an application for the program, but he’s awaiting results.

In a spontaneous moment, he jumps into the cab with Twistle, fibbing that he’s headed to the same destination. In the back of the taxi, he sees Twistle struggling with a Rubix Cube and solves it, just as the taxi pulls up to Twistle’s door. Twistle is impressed by his intelligence, and it leads to an open door.

This is one of several such moments in the film, when Chris acts on instinct and places himself in an unexpected scenario for which he is not prepared. However, each time, he somehow rises to the occasion.

Though it’s unlikely that most BDRs will find themselves in the back of a cab with a significant prospect, rolling around San Francisco solving brain teasers, it’s important that anyone in a sales role is prepared to sell at all times. 

Each time you pick up the phone to place a cold call, assume the person on the other line will a) pick up and b) want to hear your pitch. If you participate in a networking event, don’t give in to the anxiety that would hold you back from approaching the person you want to meet. And, when you do, be prepared with something worthwhile to say.

Chris may be better than the average bear at improvisation, but, with the right preparation and mindset, anyone can be prepared for their own version of the “Rubix Cube moment.”

Making it happen

Your career in sales may not end like Chris Gardner’s, but it definitely won’t if you don’t hustle like it’s possible. If you want to start tomorrow with some new habits, which will help you sell like Chris, then here are your next steps:

  • Identify any fears or inhibitions which are holding you back from cold calling or any other aspect of prospecting.
  • Talk with a trusted manager or mentor for guidance or tips. If you can, role play with your colleagues until you feel more comfortable.
  • If you want to get better at cold calling, then check out our other resources on mastering the art of getting on the phone and closing deals. This comprehensive guide is a great place to start.

If you lead a team of sales professionals, and you want to coach them all to take their performance to the next level, then reach out for a quick consultation with one of our strategic management and performance consultants; we help teams like yours every day to get out there and make it happen.

Finally, to our sales brethren, we wish you the very best. Like Chris, we believe this is an honorable profession, and you should be proud to be a part of growing a business that serves other people well. Cheers!

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