Is outbound selling dead in the age of inbound marketing?

How should you approach a cold database list today asks my clients. Here are my recommendations for outbound selling in the age of inbound marketing.


“I’m sitting on database gold,” says the owner of a consulting firm.

“I know exactly who I want to do business with. I have a cleaned database of 1500 names. None of them know us yet but we have a really strong track record.

I really need more clients. What’s the quickest and best way to approach people, get them on side and generate sales?”

How should you approach a cold database today?

My client asks a very valid question, one that I know many other businesses struggle with.

Business development is tough today isn’t it? In pretty much every firm I speak to it’s the number one challenge. And so much has changed. Back in the day – well, the early 1990s to be precise – I was a salesperson. At the birth of the telesales era I’d phone people up and they’d sometimes thank me for my call! Can you even imagine that today?

When it comes to doing business today the big problem is trust. We are all too busy, too oversold to, mistrusting of companies in general and self-oriented selling in particular. When I think of the number of cold sales emails I’ve junked, the number of times I’ve put the phone down on a salesman, the adverts I’ve ignored then this is the only course of action I can recommend.

My recommendations:

  • It is OK to make outbound contact, so long as you add value in the process.
  • Don’t make contact until your platform is right. Your website is the first thing people check if they like what you’ve sent them so make sure it stands up to scrutiny and builds trust with useful content.
  • You want fast results? Start with your warm contacts not the cold list. You have a veritable goldmine of past clients and prospects and other contacts who know you. It’s much easier to strike up a conversation when you have some history. Send them your valuable guide. Tell them what you are doing and ask them if there’s anyone they know you can help. Invite them to sign up to your newsletter, or to a useful event. Reignite the conversation in a valuable way.
  • When it comes to your cold list, think personal contact not blanket bomb mass emails. Court them with valuable content. Send out your guide by post in small batches and follow up personally. Invite them to contribute to your research and share the results with them. Start conversations on the back of that.

“It’s easy to alienate prospects with hard pitch promotional emails, however people on your list can gain value from your expertise when demonstrated through thought leadership.” Newfangled Web

  • Continue to add value with each and every contact. Earn the right to hold that sales conversation. Make it more about helping and less about selling what you have to offer and success will come.

[Recommended reading: How to market to a purchased email list, by Newfangled Web]

Inbound and outbound in harmony

Inbound and outbound activities work well in tandem. Here are two businesses using a mix of valuable inbound and outbound contact for sales success:

  1. Information risk management consultants Ascentor – read the case study
  2. Conscious Solutions – web development firm to the legal industry – read the case study

What do you think?

That’s my view and experience but what do you think?

Does the rise of inbound and content marketing herald the death of proactive, outbound selling? What’s the best way to build awareness and make contact if you’re looking for sales results?

Do share your thoughts here.

Survey results, 5 August 2013:

How should you approach a cold database today? With great care say our readers in response to our recent survey. Overwhelming support for a careful, well thought out approach to outbound contact.

(Visited 271 times, 1 visits today)


  1. David Gilroy

    Hi Sonja, nice of you to reference our work in the link above. Here are some of my thoughts


    – It is OK to make outbound contact, so long as you add value in the process.
    DG>> Yes it and correct. No-one wants to have their time wasted. The worse question you can ask in any opening statement to a cold/warm contact is something as crass as “How are you today?”. C’mon, let’s be honest, you really don’t care how they are, you just want their money!

    – Don’t make contact until your platform is right. Your website is the first thing people check if they like what you’ve sent them so make sure it stands up to scrutiny and builds trust with useful content.
    DG>> Correct. Your website is the absolute first place a prospect will go to check up on you. The first thing they do is look at your actual website, the second thing people usually do is enter your company name in Google and see what gossip comes up for your name. Have you tried that recently? Reputation management services like Mention ( are worth investing in.

    – You want fast results? Start with your warm contacts not the cold list. You have a veritable goldmine of past clients and prospects and other contacts who know you. It’s much easier to strike up a conversation when you have some history. Send them your valuable guide. Tell them what you are doing and ask them for referrals. Invite them to sign up to your newsletter. Reignite the conversation in a valuable way.
    DG>> Milk your own cows. This is a phrase that Jeffrey Gitomer ( advocates. Why go to another field and milk someone else’s cows. Start with your existing clients, think “holes in buckets” as described so eloquently by Bryony Thomas in her book Watertight Marketing (

    When it comes to your cold list, think personal contact not blank bomb mass emails. Court them with valuable content. Send out your guide by post in small batches and follow up personally. Invite them to contribute to your research and share the results with them. Start conversations on the back of that.
    DG>> Don’t EVER try marketing to cold contacts until you’ve exhausted all the “warm contacts”. These might be your 2nd Connections in LinkedIn that you can contact through your 1st Connections. In 2013 we’ve had some great success turning “cold” contacts into “warm” contacts using direct mail. Yep, old fashioned, creatively designed things through the post. Each time adding value to our “message”.

    Continue to add value with each and every contact. Earn the right to hold that sales conversation. Make it more about helping and less about selling what you have to offer and success will come.
    DG>> The age of “closing” is long gone. Try this as a principle. “Don’t sell, tell. Don’t tell, ask”. If it needs explaining, look me up on LinkedIn and ask me what I mean.

  2. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks so much David for adding a LOT of value to this conversation. I love the ‘milk your own cows’ phrase! Keen to hear more about your ‘Don’t sell, tell’ and ‘don’t tell, ask’ mantra. Let’s catch up on that soon – could be an interesting article there. S

  3. David Shaw

    Hi Sonja and David,

    Really valid and useful advice. Its a battle that is going on in boardrooms up and down the country. Old school marketers and sales managers still believe the the cold call is the best way fwd. What i liked about this post was the challenge set out was to get business fast and that where alot of companies are. I have tried to avoid having telesales people but the other directors have decided thats the only way to get business fast? I just dont know anymore and would love your thoughts on this? Also David you mentioned a mailing you sent out that added value to your message? Can you elborate if possible or even in private via linkedin?

    Thanks guys great posts


  4. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks so much for the comment David. Sounds like you have a challenge on your hands.

    I don’t think telesales is a fast way to win business. It is the default port of call for businesses when they see a hole in their pipeline but in all my experience I have never seen it work – you may get some meetings but these meetings tend to be poor quality as the person meeting you was persuaded into having a meeting they didn’t really want. Many of these meetings cancel or end up being a waste of time. That doesn’t mean that telemarketing agencies aren’t useful – they can conduct really valuable research for example – but I would never use them to make cold calls.

    As David Gilroy says the fastest way to new business is through those that know you. As an example I recently received a well-worded communication from a business I knew well and respected asking me for referrals to others I thought they could help. I was happy to do so. If you have a good network they may be able to assist.

    Good luck and thanks for taking the time to comment.


  5. Bryony Thomas

    Thanks David for the mention, and thanks Sonja for the thought-provoking post. The approach I advise is content-driven telemarketing. As demonstrated by David, if you have something of genuine value then you’re not wasting people’s time. And, as you said yourself Sonja, in our joint case study for Ascentor – when done well, “this stuff flies under the anti-marketing radar.” It’s low volume, high quality, SLOW sales that deliver in the long term. And, these (in my experience) use an integrated mix of phone, content, email, personal contact… and great coffee 😉

    Case study:

  6. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks Bryony. That’s great stuff. Interested to know your thoughts – who should do the telemarketing?

  7. Rachael Wheatley

    Interesting discussion and completely agree with Sonja’s original post and others’ responses. A few further thoughts.

    When approaching cold contacts, one touchpoint may well not be sufficient – it may take 2, 3, 4 valuable touchpoints to both demonstrate credibility and make any follow-up call ‘warmer’ and more likely to result in something, even a conversation and agreement to remain in contact.

    I was coaching someone this morning and we were having a discussion about email vs hard copy when approaching people who don’t know you – interested in others’ views on this. Not everyone will read an email from someone they don’t know (I don’t) so I tend to use hard copy for sending valuable content in these instances – though have to if sending one of our books!

    Fast results is definitely a phrase on a lot of people’s lips currently, but even with existing clients or warm contacts where decisions will be taken more quickly (because they know you), they still have to have a current need and it’s still their timescale, not yours, however fast your boss is saying he wants the results! There is also a danger, as Bryony alludes to, of concentrating on trying to get one pot of jam today which can get in the way of building BD and marketing plans (for new and existing clients) which will result in several pots of jam tomorrow.

  8. Sonja Jefferson

    That’s great advice – thanks very much Rachael. I really like your points on number of touchpoints and also on the fact it’s their timescales, not yours. So true. Many thanks for this. On the email vs. print comment – I’m always touched when I receive something real in the post – especially if it is as valuable as a book. That makes a deeper connection with me than any email. I’d welcome others’ thoughts on this too.

  9. Rachael Wheatley

    Yes, and I’ve had that comment from several people who have gone on to become clients.

    Regarding your question about who should make the call – I have always thought that if you send the email/letter you should make the call, especially if you’ve gone to the trouble of personalising it, because it looks odd if, it having been sent in your name, someone else makes the call. If it’s delegated, how does that appear to the other person? For most professionals I deal with (lawyers, accountants, consultants) however, this is a real challenge on all sorts of fronts – time, getting over the ‘making the call’ hurdle, etc, even if you’re talking a handful of contacts to follow-up with. Should they give this task to their BDM or an external agency?

  10. Bryony Thomas

    On the who should do telemarketing. In a knowledge business, I’d say the person with the knowledge…
    Ideal: the person from whose head the valuable content came
    Second best: a person in that team whose knowledge is almost as good
    Third best: a ‘salesperson’ working alongside these people (insourced or outsourced)

    Other models can definitely work, but this is what I’ve seen get the best results. I would add that this is in a low-volume, high-value, context.

  11. Rachael Wheatley

    Succinctly put Bryony, and agree. Thanks – very helpful.

  12. Bryony Thomas

    Yep – with Rachael on the multiple touch thing. I cover it as ‘triangulation’ in Watertight Marketing – where it’s often the third exposure (from a trusted source) that triggers a response.

    When it comes to telemarketing, you’d hope it goes something like this…
    – Touch one: they see you mentioned in a Tweet from someone they follow and trust.
    – Touch two: They see an article of yours on a website they love
    – Touch three: You call them (serendipity: what lucky timing 😉 ) and they think – ‘wow, I keep seeing these guys everywhere, how interesting. Yes, I’ll have a quick chat’
    – And, then you offer them some fab content, they read it, love it and you’re into a valuable conversation that may lead to a sale…

    I also think there’s an Awareness Equation that comes into play at the top of this process. That mention in the tweet they notice may have gone un-noticed last week or the article skimmed over without a second glance on another day… but for reasons of selective attention they now notice you (even though you were always there). So, if you’re not mastering this in the background most calls are cold calls.

  13. Gary Williams

    Great topic Sonja. I think we’re all in agreement here and I’ve not got a huge amount to add except to say that it is important to remember what your objectives are.

    With a list such as the one you mention the goal should be to ‘get to the table’. The content is not going to sell your service, you are! The focus should be on answering the question – ‘what’s in it for the prospect to spend an hour with you?’ That should help when wondering what constitutes truly valuable content.

    Key words for me: Relevant, Informative, Useful.

    It helps if you are operating from a place in the market where you are at the epicentre, where your intelligence has currency and your insight is something that provides a tangible benefit. When you follow up this kind of approach, and I concur with Rachael – it may take a few times, you will find that those sales meeting come very easily.

  14. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks Gary – well said. Content will absolutely get you to the table then, as you say, it’s over to you – other skills are then required. I’d recommend Charles H Green’s Trust-based Selling book for this part of the sale.

    Thanks for all your fantastic comments – what a valuable thread you’ve created for anyone struggling with sales. Have a fab weekend all of you. I’m off for a big swim on the south coast. Thanks for helping to make it a great week.

  15. Neil Fletcher

    Sonja, the short, unqualified answer to the question in your title is ‘no’. (But you knew that already!)

    It’s a great post with such great responses that it’s difficult to bring any new or different perspective to the party. However, not being one to shirk a challenge…

    The way to a customer’s heart (and wallet) has ALWAYS been as already described – add value, multi-touchpoints, make it personal, the easiest and quickest business comes from existing customers and so on. Always has been, always will be.

    What has changed is information asymmetry. In days of yore, the sales and marketing departments held the upper hand as they had all the information. If you, as a purchaser, wanted to know something, you went to a sales or marketing person to educate you. Mistrust has arisen through companies abusing this position of power.

    Now if you want to find out about a particular product or service, you go to the internet for your education through websites, discussion forums, customer reviews, blogs etc. etc. etc. Information asymmetry has become information symmetry – the balance of power has shifted back towards equilibrium.

    As a marketer, you now need to produce valuable content to engage with your prospective customer appropriately at every stage in their buying cycle. Always address ‘what’s in it for me’ from the customers perspective.

    As a salesperson, IF you get invited into the buyers conversation (which you should be if your marketing department have done the right things) be prepared to add insight, knowledge, expertise into the mix. Don’t just regurgitate what’s in your marketing collateral – they’ve seen that already. Give them something new to think about. If you don’t, you’re out and somebody more switched on than you is booking that order.

    Thanks again for kicking off a fabulous conversation.

  16. Steve

    Hi Sonja,

    It sounds astonishing that people would actually thank you for calling back in the 90’s! I seriously can’t imagine how life was back then for the telesales man/woman!

    From my time in telesales, I definitely agree on what you’re saying: focus on your warm lists and guaranteed returns and then start on the cold lists I use to create small plans before each call if possible and target onto anything I could! It’s a tough industry but some people are naturals at this !

  17. Sonja Jefferson

    Hello Neil – great to hear from you and to get your thoughts from the coal face of sales.

    I love what you say about ‘information symmetry’ – hadn’t thought of the shift in the balance of power in that way before and I think that’s just right.

    I agree that the marketing department has a major role to play in this customer-driven world – bigger than ever before – but I think sales people have a large part to play too.

    Success comes when marketing, sales and the technical experts/consultants work very closely together. All must collaborate on the creation of great content (sales knows the questions prospects are asking – marketing and technical experts can help them to create content that answers those questions). The traditional silos and egos really have to go if you want results today.

    The salesperson’s job has always been to open and build relationships. Social media just makes this more interesting. Salespeople now have a vast network to engage with. With the right attitude and behaviour, equipped with the right content and backed up by the right systems this is a huge opportunity for anyone selling today.

    Thanks again Neil for making me think and moving the conversation on.


  18. Sonja Jefferson

    It does seem unbelievable today Steve, doesn’t it! Thanks for the comment.

  19. Terri Lucas

    Great post Sonja. Here’s a perspective from the world of providing occupational pensions and benefits .

    What we find works is to emphasise to our colleagues the art of getting into a conversation and dialogue, rather than the direct pursuit of a sale. Being valuable to a prospect goes beyond producing content (although that is often a vital component of showing how one can help) and is about understanding who they are, what makes them tick, which problems they need to solve and to get into a conversation that builds rapport, and in time, trust. That way, the sales part takes care of itself and our professional subject matter experts feel that they’ve done what comes naturally to them – consult rather than sell. The outcome however is the same.

  20. Sonja Jefferson

    Great points Terri – thanks for passing these on. I think you get a far better outcome by doing business naturally, with a desire to be of value to your prospects.

  21. Kristina Hughes

    Those were the days of telesales, eh – back in the 90’s….The difference was that if we could actually get people to listen (which was easier because people weren’t jaded by overselling), they genuinely got a great deal with the hotel memberships that we were selling!

    Nowadays I never take a sales call – life IS too busy,nothing is free and we trust no one these days! However, I WILL look at emails that visually grab me. The aesthetics come first for me, then I look at written content and then I might follow a link to a website/blog/FB page. Then, and only then, would I entertain being contacted! Sold to the lady who likes pretty graphics (I am not a business person!)

  22. Sonja Jefferson

    Hi! It was a different era to be sure. Time seems to have sped up doesn’t it? Totally agree – something beautiful is always difficult to ignore. Thanks for the comment!

  23. Stephen Kenwright

    Hi Sonja,

    I think you can add value with outbound calling and actually achieve what you set out to, like you say – but I think it’s important to pay attention to who is making the calls. In my experience cold emails and calls from a reputable source get a relatively good uptake, at least in terms of conversation and the beginnings of relationships; but dedicated salespeople, despite being obviously skilled at it…not so much. Worse still, I was cold-calling on behalf of another department when I was a junior Copywriter at a previous company…needless to say I didn’t generate any leads for SEO at the time, and I can’t say I really tried too hard…

  24. Nick Charles

    This is one of the biggest questions that as a business development manager I have to answer. My feeling currently is that you get a better conversion rate from clients that respond to an in-bound marketing message however without out-bound activity the opportunity to grow is out of your hands. The ideal solution is to balance in-bound and out-bound and keep the messages informative and inspiring so that when the timing is right the client comes to you.

    You will have heard that you shouldn’t cold call anymore, which is true, but what you can do is build as much intelligence on a prospect before calling so that you immediately come over as interested in them rather than sales focused. It’s a bit like dating, talk about yourself and people will soon turn off, get a little bit of information from them (the drink they enjoy, friends in common etc) and start listening until they ask about you.

    Don’t underestimate this role, it could be the make or break of your company so put the best person forward, this can be the MD but if they aren’t suited to being thick skinned and confident then find someone who is and give them the passion for your business so they exude this with every conversation. People buy from people so let them manage the whole process, don’t get one person on the phone and then mix the messages with a different person in the meeting (controversial, but in my experience the best solution). A consistent message and a genuine interest in the client will get you the furthest in any new business call.

  25. Sonja Jefferson

    Hello Nick.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to post such a well-thought through response.

    I completely agree – inbound and outbound can and should work together. I wrote on that here with a case study if you’re interested –

    As part of our work we phone up our clients’ clients to get feedback on their value in order to build their message. I spoke to a fantastic guy in the US this week, a senior director who is bombarded by cold calls. He always stops the caller and asks ‘what do you know about my business?’. The answer is invariably a resounding silence! It just proves their lack of interest in the business – all they want to do is sell their stuff, and that’s not enough.

    I like your controversial statement about not outsourcing the sales effort. In my time as a sales manager and since I’ve never seen this work well.

    Look forward to continuing this conversation Nick. Thanks again.




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