Business Development tips - turn "cold" calls into "warm" conversations

A few days ago I read a blog post on Cold Calling, which I also shared on LinkedIn. It prompted me to think about my past experience with cold calling. Did I do a lot of these calls in my past sales roles? Definitely! 

Here is a little cold calling anecdote: I started my sales career in beautiful Beijing, coming straight out of hotel school. Back in 2005 we had a fantastic Director of Sales & Marketing, who had previously been with Starwood and definitely knew his way around. But technology and sales intelligence software wasn't quite what it is today, which left our prospecting efforts less sophisticated than they could have been. So one day, we organized a sales blitz. Our entire (wonderful) sales team got onto a minivan and we drove into an industrial zone right outside of Beijing. There, new companies were opening on an almost weekly basis and we walked from one office building to the next, knocked on doors, gave out business cards and fliers, recorded the company name and if we got to talk to someone, a contact name and telephone number. It felt awkward walking along these wide, deserted streets between massive industrial complexes, knowing that none was expecting to see you. But at the same time, it was an extremely valuable sales experience to have had. It was blind cold calling in its true sense, it filled and updated our database and taught me how to strike up a friendly business conversation with a complete stranger. 

Ten years later, I worked as Business Development Manager for The Ritz-Carlton Toronto and spent a large amount of my time on research. Learning about my client's organization, finding group history on social media groups and forums, getting to know the event organizers on LinkedIn or Facebook and digging up any relevant past sales activities, from archived conversations to past turn-down reasons, became a habit before ever contacting a potential customer for the first time. Spending hours on preparing for one phone call may seem a little much, but it is exactly that research that made my "cold" calls feel "warm", targeted and personal to me and the client. 

Here are my tips on how to research potential customers before that first interaction. They are specific to hotel group sales. Send me an email to kd@the-skill-shop.com or leave comments below with additional tips, I would love to hear from you!

1. Create a Target Account List - and keep it updated

The number of organizations that could be doing business with you is endless, so find your focus by creating a list of target accounts or target pieces of business. Create this list from:

  • Your own property's lost inquiry / turned down history reports

Ask your sales coordinator to prepare a list of inquiries from Q4 2016 for you that did not end up signing with your hotel. Review the lost reasons and check whether you see an opportunity to win this business for Q4 of 2017 (do the same for Q1 2018 or any other time period you are currently focusing on).

  • Competitor intelligence reports

If you are lucky, your company is working with data analysis services such as Knowland (collecting group and catering information of your competition or geographical location) or other reader board reports. These reports should be your best friend and while they aren't perfect (yes, wrong telephone numbers, incomplete information or contact names), they are a good start. 

  • Sister property history reports

Build your own network within the company you work for and know the other sales managers handling the same territories as you are. Help each other! You are all in touch with the same companies and are trying to find out similar information! If you are a property in Barcelona and you want more US Incentive business, contact your colleague at your property in Miami and ask for his history reports. Through this you will find new contacts, new accounts and new group business to target. 

Note to independent hotels: this works equally well if you are working with a privately owned property and are a one-off! When working with a privately owned boutique hotel, I built an alliance with two boutique hotels in markets that were important to my property - Vancouver and New York. We bartered comp room nights for each others sales trips, exchanged account information and even ended up doing some sales calls together. It benefited all of us. 

Work through your target business list, remove the ones that don't have potential and add new ones that you come across. Keep it a live document! 

2. Don't waste your time - say "No" when needed

As a sales manager, we manage customer relationships that are often very dear to us. This is hard when put into practice, but try to only go after business that you really, really want. Turn down inquiries that take up a lot of your team's time and add only marginal profit to your hotel. If you are not clear on the profit margins of each room type, event space room rental, food and beverage and other services, get clarification from your Revenue Manager or Director of Finance - they will like the fact that you ask this all important question. 

3. Research all possible information on the group

If you are targeting a Gala, an Association meeting, a larger conference or any group that is being promoted in advance for higher attendance, you should be able to find images of the past event, a history agenda that will tell you about the meeting flow and information on where it was held. For Incentive groups or any internal company meetings, you will be much less likely to find information online, but try industry magazines or websites, as they sometimes award the best executed incentive trips. Take a look at the Crystal Awards by SITE!

For large conferences or meetings, think of other suppliers that may have been involved outside your competitor hotel. Maybe the group worked with a transportation provider, your local convention centre or tourism office? Your contacts there may be able and willing to share some useful background information. 

4. Know what's happening at your client organization

Nothing is worse than calling a client to pitch your luxury product when their CEO announced massive workforce cuts the day prior - and you haven't heard. So before you pick up the phone, read their most recent news. It might show you what the company is currently focusing on - Sustainability? Customer service? A new product launch? Think about how your organization can support your target clients current important issues. 

This article on VentureBeat features "7 apps to help you replace Google Alerts".

5. Get to know the person you are calling

You were hopefully able learn from your reports who the right contact person is. Before reaching out, try to gain an understanding of what your contact is all about. 

  • LinkedIn is the obvious platform to see where your contact has worked in the past. Try connecting with the contact on LinkedIn before giving them a call. It increases your chances of being recognized and building rapport. Ideally you know people in common and you can ask a friend to introduce you - this greatly increases your chances of receiving good information during the first call!
  • Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest may give you a better insight into what activities and topics your client is interested in. Think how the destination or property your are selling can cater  to these interests and thread this into your conversation. 

6. Formulate your objective for the call

Finally, before you dial, write down your most important questions for the call and prioritize them. You will often reach super busy buyers, who may not be in the mood to chat at length. If the call takes a mere two minutes, make sure you get to ask at least your most pressing question to get one step ahead.

Happy selling and let me know what your very own tips are!