Q: I'm in the process of building our B2B prospect list and will be contacting businesses by phone. Can you give me some tips on what to say? I'm worried about coming across as pushy or inexperienced.

A: Contacting prospects for the first time by telephone, especially if it's new to you, can be a daunting challenge. But don't worry-there are guidelines to follow that will get you off to a successful start.

Begin by focusing on the purpose for your calls: to qualify prospects and uncover their needs so you can determine how to fill them. Right now, you know very little about the companies and individuals you've listed, so it's vital to qualify them carefully to see that they fit your criteria for good prospects. This will save time and money in the long run, because you won't meet with unqualified prospects or squander your budget on marketing to less than ideal targets.

Before you ever pick up the telephone, it's important to set a goal for each call. What would you like to see happen as a result of your contact? Are you hoping for an appointment? If so, make this your primary goal. Whatever goal you set should move you one step closer to a sale.

Create a solid opener. For many people, the first few sentences of a cold call are the hardest. No matter how well-executed, a cold call is an unscheduled interruption, and your prospect will make a quick decision in just the first few seconds concerning whether it's worth his or her time. That's why you need to be prepared with a three-part opener that includes an introduction of yourself and your company and an opening benefit. Write down the principal benefits you expect to bring to the clients or customers you contact. Then include them in your opener. For example, imagine you own a PR company that specializes in grand openings and other events and you're contacting a retail prospect. You'd say "This is Jean Jones, president of Jones Events Inc., and my special reason for calling today is to tell you about some ideas we have for building traffic at your next grand opening."

Ask great questions. To effectively qualify prospects and uncover their needs, you must learn to ask closed- and open-ended questions. Closed questions uncover facts or can be answered with "yes" or "no," while open questions reveal the feelings and emotions behind the answers. The key to success is to practice using both until you find a comfortable mix.

Get your feet wet by writing down a list of closed questions, such as:

  • "Who is your present supplier?"
  • "How long has your company been in business?"
  • "How many units do you purchase per year?"

Next, create a list of open questions, such as:

  • "What do you like best about your present supplier?"
  • "Which kinds of grand opening activities have worked for you in the past?"
  • "In what ways do the new types of accounting software impact your department?"

When you're ready, review your questions and make a final list. In all, successful cold-calling comes down to asking good questions and listening intently so you can propose solutions that will help your prospect achieve his or her goals. It's conversation at its best-once you get the hang of it.

Close for your goal. The "close" is where many entrepreneurs run into trouble because they hesitate to ask for what they want. If you begin your call with a solid introduction, ask excellent qualifying questions and respond with beneficial information, at the close your prospect will be highly motivated to choose your firm. There's no need to worry about being perceived as pushy. If, for example, your goal is to set an appointment, you should suggest a date and time. Closing is simply a matter of reaching agreement on the next step and then following through.