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Sales - 9 min READ

9 Mistakes when selling over the phone (and how to fix them)

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Author photo: Kent Holland

Kent Holland

Vice President of Sales at Copper

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a cold call, you know just how annoying they can be.

When done incorrectly, they’re often disruptive, pushy, and a little intrusive. Unfortunately, scammy sales professionals have given cold calling a bad reputation.

Even so, the phone is one of the best ways to connect with potential customers. Unlike email, chats, or text messages, a phone call allows you to quickly answer questions and solve problems faster––both of which are crucial for closing deals.

But successfully selling over the phone isn’t easy. You need to capture your prospect’s attention quickly, not to mention keep it long enough to reach a solution.

Selling on the phone takes practice, and often a little trial-and-error. Let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes—and more importantly, how to fix them:

Before the call

Whether you’re cold calling to generate leads or you’re connecting with an already-vetted prospect who’s almost ready to buy, preparation is key for closing a deal. The golden rule to every successful deal: 80% preparation, 20% selling.

The thing is, trigger-happy sellers don’t always put in the necessary prep-work to make a call successful. Here are the biggest mistakes you should avoid before making a sales call.

1. Not doing adequate research.

Part of the reason cold calls fail is because sellers try to force a one-size-fits-all approach onto very different prospects very different needs. They use completely generic scripts and hope the other person bites.

Unsurprisingly, it just leaves the prospect frustrated—and if you're unlucky, your number is now on a block list.

When there's so much information available within just a few searches online, there's no excuse for sales calls to lack personalization.

How to fix this:

Better preparation. You shouldn’t wait until the prospect is on the phone to attempt to figure out what you can do for them.

Start with an assessment of their company website. Find out who’s in charge, how long they’ve been in business, and how they might use the products or services you’re offering. In short, know your audience!

Then get to know each potential decision-maker, either through their employee profile on their website or their professional social media pages, like Twitter or LinkedIn.

Look for any other resources that might help you get to know the people you’ll be talking with, such as an online profile or contributed content they’ve submitted.

Let’s say you’re going to reach out to a company on your prospect list, but you’re still determining who the right decision-maker might be. The first place you’d want to look is on their company website for a team profile page:

Get to know the team members shown there (if any) and decide if either of these should be your target. In this case, going straight to the CEO or President might be too challenging.

To find other potential decision-makers, search the company on LinkedIn. This will bring up a list of all the employees who work at the company (the caveat here is that not everyone is on LinkedIn—but nowadays the vast majority of people are):

Scroll through until you find someone who fits the job title you believe your decision-maker would have.

It won't always be that easy though—sometimes people don't fill out their profiles completely, or don't include their specific job title. If you can't find someone with the job title you had in mind, be flexible and see if there are other potentials who've listed that they work in that department.

In our example, we’re looking for the CMO, but since there's no CMO listed in the LinkedIn search results, we'll try looking for someone in Marketing who didn't fill out her job title:

Once you’ve found your potential prospect's name, search through their profile to learn more about them.

Oh hey, this person really is the CMO—it's just not listed in the header of her profile:

Just scrolling through this CMO’s LinkedIn profile, we see that she's updating pretty frequently about open positions:

While this tells you that the company is hiring, there are other insights you can deduce from this information. For example, it could tell you that the company is growing rapidly. Or, it might tell you their struggling to retain employees––they could be lacking inefficiency that keeps top talent around.

To find out, you can dig a little deeper.

After a quick Google search, you find a podcast interview that this CMO appeared on with more information about the company, as well as some of the marketing challenges and victories the team has experienced:

You also find an interview she's done about the importance of time management:

While this information may not appear to be connected, you can begin to craft a narrative. It’s all about telling a story (or knowing your prospect’s story!) It helps you be more credible on the phone and build better rapport.

For example, these posts tell you that the company is growing quickly but they still value a healthy work-life balance. Their team might be interested in solutions that can help them work more efficiently and productively.

You can prioritize these benefits during your sales call to make a more immediate connection.

You should be looking for potential pain points your prospect may have posted about online. Have they written a blog post about overcoming a company challenge or Tweeted asking for advice from their followers?

Knowing what challenges to address when you get on the phone can separate you from the scammy salespeople and show you’re serious. It also reduces guesswork, increases your credibility, and makes it more likely you’ll close the deal.

Pro-tip: Use your CRM to build comprehensive prospect profiles.

As you research your prospects, you’re going to want to store all your information in an organized, easy-to-access location. A CRM is your best bet.

CRMs make it easy to compile data and information about clients, prospects, and accounts. You can work with teammates to view, add, and edit insights, creating a comprehensive profile to use for sales calls.

Copper does a lot of this work for me in the background by pulling social media profiles (like LinkedIn and Twitter) from the internet and helping with this side of the research.

Let’s look at how this works.

To start logging data about a prospect, I'd go to their profile page. (Generally, you should be creating profiles for prospects as you come across their information so that you can build on what you know over time and not approaching them completely cold.) I hit “Create Note” in the center column:

Within this notes space, I have full control over the kind of information I store.

If I wanted to, I can also pin an important note so that it’ll always be at the top—this way, when I finally get the prospect on the phone, all the relevant info is at my fingertips:

Keep a running list of insights you discover on the client that you can refer back to before making your sales call.
Image for post Seal the deal.
Pro-tip 👇

Seal the deal.

Learn how to close the sale like a pro with this free guide.

2. Not setting call objectives and goals.

The goal of a sales call might be obvious––to sell. But one conversation isn’t enough to convince a prospect to buy––especially if you’re making a cold call.

It’s likely that you’ll have to have a number of calls, meetings, and other conversations before a prospect is ready to buy. Each of those connection points should have a unique goal: typically a smaller step along the way of closing a deal.

Failing to set these objectives and goals before a call can leave you without direction—and not knowing what you’re trying to accomplish while you have the prospect on the line just wastes everyone’s time.

How to fix this:

Before dialing your prospect’s number, stop and think about what you’d realistically like to happen or what you’d like the prospect to do by the end of the call. (They don't have to buy right away!)

Here are some ideas:

  • Agree to schedule an introductory call or meeting to further discuss your products or services
  • Point you in the direction of other key contacts or decision makers at the company
  • Share their budget constraints
  • Give you a date or timeframe of when they might be ready to buy
  • Further explain a pain point or challenge the organization is facing
  • Share insights into other tools the customer is using and how they might be working for their teams

The goal of the call will depend heavily on where they're at in the sales funnel. For example, if this is the first time you’re contacting a prospect, it’s unlikely that they’ll be willing to talk budget right away, but they might be open to discussing current pain points or challenges.

Set one goal (and only one) before you begin your call. Focusing on just one objective can prevent you from overwhelming the prospect with questions and make it more realistic that you’ll accomplish your key task.

3. Not rehearsing your questions and potential answers.

There is no telling where a sales conversation may go. A prospect could give you a completely unexpected answer, making your entire sales script obsolete––but that doesn’t mean you should completely wing the conversation. Understanding the framework of a call and having specific goals is better than relying on a script.

While setting goals and objectives is a good start, it’s like the “X” on a treasure map. You know where you’re trying to go, but you still need to find the path from Point A to Point B.

How to fix this:

Prepare some questions in advance. Consider what you need to ask the customer to talk about the goals and objectives you’ve established.

Let’s say your main objective of a sales call is to better understand if you’re talking to the right decision maker. You might ask some of the following questions:

  • Does the problem you’re facing hurt more than just you and your team?
  • Who else might be interested in learning more about this product/service?
  • At your organization, who is responsible for making purchasing decisions?
  • How are product/service decisions made on your team?
  • Is there anyone else you think I should talk to about these offerings?
  • Are you willing to make an introduction?

Knowing some of the questions you might ask before picking up the phone can help you stay focused on your call goals. However, you need to be ready to pivot depending on how your prospect responds.

That’s why it’s a good idea to prepare some potential answers from clients. Anticipating responses, additional questions, or possible directions the conversation could move in can prevent you from being caught off guard.

It’s never a bad idea to bring a team member into this process. Work together to brainstorm different potential responses and how you’ll continue the conversation for each––and be sure to do a couple for common objections. Rehearse follow-ups that can keep the call on track to achieving your goals.

On the call

While proper preparation is key to having a successful sales call, the real magic happens when you’re on the phone––but just one slight misstep could cost you the entire sale.

Here are the most common mistakes people make when selling over the phone.

4. Failing to listen.

You’ve done your research, set your goals, and rehearsed the questions you’re going to ask to get the answers you need. You’re on a mission and you’re ready for it.

But sometimes, focusing too hard on that mission can prevent you from listening to your prospect.

And when you don't listen, the conversation can go the wrong way quickly. When you stick too closely to a script or you ignore what your prospect is telling you because it doesn’t fit your agenda, you risk losing the deal––and making your prospect angry.

How to fix this:

It might seem obvious, but the only way to fix this is to become a better listener.

As opposed to an in-person sales conversation, it’s harder to pick up on things like tone or body language over the phone. This means you need to rely heavily on your prospect’s responses and questions.

Sometimes being a better listener means slowing the conversation down. Mirror them as much as possible—using the same tempo, volume and even terminology is extremely helpful.

It can be tempting to get your elevator pitch in as quickly as possible. After all, your prospects are busy people and they could hang up at any time.

However, taking a minute to allow your prospect to explain their positions, give complete responses to your questions, and ask questions of their own can help you have more valuable conversations.

Here are some tips to becoming a better listener:

  • Don’t interrupt. Interjecting in the middle of a prospect’s response is not only rude, but it also prevents you from better understanding––and ultimately meeting––their needs.
  • Repeat back for clarification. Paraphrasing prospects' responses can prove you’re listening and also allow them to make any clarifying statements or provide more information.
  • Ask follow-up questions. Dig deeper into the responses your prospect is giving––even if it doesn’t fit the initial script you had created.
  • Take notes. Jot down even seemingly unimportant information, such as if a prospect mentions a child or pet. Use these anecdotes in future conversations.

Pro-tip: Make sure you're storing your prospect's information to refer back to later. I'll show you how you can do that in a CRM below.

As we already pointed out, your CRM is a great place to store information—including notes as you’re on a call.

You can even connect the notes you make to the call log in your CRM so you’ll know exactly where that information came from and how you got it.

Here's how I do it in Copper: on the customer profile page, I just choose the “Log Activity” option:

Then, in the same way I'd add a note, I'll leave details about the call, including the date and time:

Attaching call-specific notes to the event gives me an easy way to look back and track the progression of these conversations so I always know what's next in the sales process.

5. Using harsh or pushy language.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a sales call with someone who just won’t accept that you’re not interested? It’s not pleasant.

They act condescending and defensive, trying to pressure you into agreeing to purchase or a second meeting. When you finally hang up, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth (and you'd probably block the number they called you from).

You do not want to be this person.

While those kinds of salespeople might be able to strong-arm a few leads into agreeing to a deal, the relationship is built on bullying and control. It’s not likely they’ll become repeat, long-term customers willing to make referrals.

How to fix this:

Let go of any sales tactic that doesn’t focus on improving the life of your prospect––even if it means not closing a deal.

Not every lead or prospect will be interested in purchasing your product or service. This can be a hard pill to swallow, but recognizing when someone isn’t interested in speaking with you can do a lot for your credibility.

Instead of being defensive or pushy when a prospect says no, focus on positioning yourself as a qualified, helpful expert in your field. Be eager to discuss the solutions you can provide and the problems you can solve-–even if it means you have to back off for now from talking about the product you’re trying to sell.

Use positive language and focus on building rapport. Be transparent about the reasons behind your call and listen to their responses.

But above all, know when it’s time to hang up. If a prospect says it’s not the right time or they’re just not interested, trying to hold them hostage on the line isn’t going to do anything but make them angry––and ruin your reputation.

By being respectful and polite, you can let them know you’re available and willing to chat if they ever find themselves in the market for your product or service.

6. Not hearing and understanding objections.

An objection isn’t always an outright “no.”

Sometimes an objection is hidden under a question or concern. If you’re unable to identify hesitation or protest in your prospect’s responses (this is where being a good listener comes in handy!), you can’t provide them with the appropriate information they need to make a deal.

This is a crucial step because by the time a prospect gives you an outright no, it’s usually too late to change their mind.

How to fix this:

Listen to the questions your prospect asks for signs of resistance. For example, these are all questions that contain objections:

  • What is your pricing model?
  • Do you offer a free trial period?
  • How long does the implementation process take?
  • Is there a money back guarantee?
  • Do you have a training program for new customers?
  • Do you have a return policy?

In one way or another, these questions indicate the prospect has some doubts even if they’re not giving a direct no.

If a prospect is asking questions about training or onboarding, this could imply that they’re not sure how easily their team will adjust to your product or service. While you could simply say, "Yes, we do have a training program," giving them additional details on your onboarding process can help alleviate some of their fears.

For example, you could offer to put them in touch with a current client who recently went through your customer onboarding process. This peer-to-peer communication can give prospects who are on the fence a better idea of what they can expect with your business.

Learn to better understand the underlying reasoning behind these objecting questions.

Identify some of the common protests you get on sales calls, then analyze what could be causing the prospect to ask that question. While each prospect might have their own reasons, having some background knowledge can help you make more educated guesses in the future.

If you’re completely unsure of why a prospect might be asking a certain question, don’t be afraid to ask questions of your own in order to get to know what problem the prospect is really trying to solve.

After the call

The sales process isn’t over when you hang up the phone. There are still mistakes you can make after the call that could cost you your relationship with the prospect and closing the deal.

Let’s check them out.

7. Not following up.

Hanging up at the end of a great sales call that went well is such a satisfying feeling. When the prospect is engaging in conversation and interested in moving further down the sales funnel, it can feel like a weight is lifted off your shoulders.

But getting too comfortable can cause the momentum and interest to die.

Failing to follow up at the end of a sales call––no matter how successful––gives room for the prospect to lose interest or change their mind.

How to fix this:

Send a follow-up as soon as you get off the phone. This applies to both successful and unsuccessful sales calls.

Follow-ups when the call goes the way you hoped are easy.

Once you hang up with an interested prospect, send them any materials or content that will help move them along the sales funnel. You might have previously discussed these items, or they might be things you thought they’d find interesting.

However, the content you follow up with should move the sales process along. After all, selling over the phone is just one piece of closing a sale. You should always follow up with supplemental materials to help educate and encourage your prospect to eventually buy.

Here’s an example of a follow-up message you could send to an interested prospect:

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for your time this morning. I’ve attached the infographic we discussed on the phone. I think this information will be incredibly useful in helping you realize the value a subscription to our platform can bring to your team.

I also thought you might be interested in our latest webinar: Moving from Spreadsheets to CRM. This is a great resource for planning your transition.

Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll follow up later this week to get your thoughts on the infographic and webinar.

If the prospect wasn’t interested, you should still send a follow-up message. Even a simple note thanking them for their time can help you maintain a strong relationship so if the prospect eventually changes their mind, you can pick the conversation back up.

Here’s an example of a follow-up message you could send to an uninterested prospect.

Hi Judy,

I wanted to thank you for your time this afternoon. I understand you’re not currently in the market for a new solution, but if that should change, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Following up with a prospect––even if they’re not interested in buying what you’re selling––generates goodwill and builds trust.

Pro-tip: Use templates to make follow-up emails even easier (and faster).

8. Not establishing expectations.

Have you ever hung up the phone feeling great about a conversation you had with a prospect? They’ve promised to talk with the other decision makers on their team and they’ll get back to you ASAP.

So you wait. And wait. And wait.

A week passes and you still haven’t gotten an update.

Meanwhile, your prospect was waiting to hear from you before they talked with their team.

Because you didn’t take an extra minute to establish expectations and next steps, you’ve wasted time and potentially lost the deal.

How to fix this:

Establishing expectations at the end of a sales call can ensure both parties are on the same page of what will happen next. You can lay out what steps you’ll be taking to progress the conversation, and remind your prospect of what they’ve agreed to do as well.

Identifying expectations and next steps can also be a great way to wrap up a call and make sure you’re prioritizing the appropriate items and information.

For example, let’s say your prospect has mentioned on the call that they’re not the only decision-maker within the company. Before they can make any purchases, they’ll need to discuss with their CFO but they want some more information on price first.

Before hanging up or in your follow-up message, you set the expectation that your prospect will reach out to their CFO after getting the pricing content from you. You might say:

“I’ll send you the pricing information as soon as we hang up so you can send it to your CFO and finance team.”

This clearly lays out what steps you’ll be taking, as well as what steps you expect them to take as well.

To make your expectations stronger, you can also attach a timeline or “due date.” Letting them know when they can expect to hear from you again and when you’ll be waiting to hear from them can make each party more accountable.

You can go a step even further to schedule the next time you talk. Setting another phone call can help everyone stay on track and give a deadline for when they need their tasks completed. This can do wonders for ensuring the sales process moves along smoothly and you close your deal as efficiently as possible.

9. Not evaluating the success of your call.

We’ve already established the importance of setting goals before getting on the phone, but what value does that step bring if you’re not going back to measure whether or not you succeeded?

Just moving on from a sales conversation––whether it went well or not––does little to improve the way you sell. Instead, it allows potential issues to reoccur or gaps in your sales process to remain.

Knowing your goals in a sales call can help you ensure the conversation moves in the right direction. However, at the end of the call, you should go back and measure how well you were able to achieve those goals to analyze how well the conversation went and strengthen your selling skills for future calls.

How to fix this:

After completing a sales call and following up, go back to the goals you established before the call. Identify how well you were (or weren’t) able to achieve them.

Start with a brain dump. Write down all the information you remember from the call.

This could include anything from insights about the company to personal details that the prospect has shared.

Once you have all the details out of your brain and onto a piece of paper (or the notes section of your CRM), go back to the list of goals you established before the call.

What did you hope to learn? Are the details or insights you hoped to gain one of the things listed in your brain dump?

If the answer is yes, congratulations! You accomplished your goal––but you’re not done yet.

You need to evaluate exactly what you did that made that call successful. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to do that:

  • What questions did I ask that were successful?
  • What questions did I ask that weren’t successful?
  • What other useful information did I gather?
  • What could I have done to make the process more efficient?
  • What steps, questions, or tips could I give to reach the goal faster next time?

Focusing on what worked and identifying what didn’t can help you streamline your process next time you have a similar goal with a prospect.

But, if the answer to your original question is no––if you didn’t reach your initial goal––you need to take an even harder look at what you did and didn’t do correctly.

Before writing off the entire sales call as a failure, it’s important to note that just because you didn’t reach the goal or objective you established before the call doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. You might not have had the right goal in the first place.

To evaluate the success of a call that didn’t go the way you anticipated, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What information was I able to gather from this phone call?
  • What was the reasoning behind establishing my original goal and do I still need to achieve it to complete the sales process?
  • What could I have done better to achieve that goal?
  • What questions did I ask that was not successful?
  • What questions did I ask that were successful?
  • What should be my objective for our next conversation be?

Try to get a better understanding of what you were able to accomplish and what that means to the overall sales process. Even if you didn’t achieve the goal you established before the call, the deal could still happen––just not in the way you originally anticipated.

Taking the extra time to analyze how a call went and why you did or did not meet your goal can help you pivot if need be.

Pro-tip: Store your brain dump notes and answers to your evaluation questions in your CRM for easy reference later.

Improving your over-the-phone sales process

There are plenty of mistakes you can make when selling over the phone. Identifying the missteps you might be making and understanding what not to do can help you create a process that does work.

To recap, here are some steps you can take to make selling over the phone more efficient:

  • Before the call, do research on your sales prospects, establish goals and objectives for the conversation, and rehearse questions and potential answers.
  • On the call, listen for understanding, avoid harsh or pushy language, and pay close attention to veiled objections.
  • After the call, send a follow-up regardless of how the conversation ended, set clear expectations or next steps, and analyze what did and didn’t work during the call.

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