One Writer’s Top 5 Lessons from Making 461 Cold Calls

by Sarah Maurer

In June 2010, I quit my job as a school counselor in Thailand, moved back to the States, and started my own freelance writing business.

Looking back, it was probably a stupid thing to do.

I had no clips and no pro writing credits. I couldn’t really fall back on my education — my degrees were in geology and school counseling. And having lived in Asia for six years, I knew next to no one stateside that I could hit up for writing work.

I came up with the idea to cold call while reading Peter Bowerman’s book, The Well-Fed Writer. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege to read his awesome body of work, Peter built his business through cold calling.

I figured it was probably the only option available to me, given that I had next to zero industry experience and very few contacts. But it took me a few months (and quite a few blechy Ramen-noodle dinners) to psyche myself up to try it.
I started by making 25 cold calls each day to companies in my area. I basically just introduced myself and asked if they had any occasional or ongoing needs for a writer. I had a basic website up with a few samples and a resume uploaded, and when prospects expressed interest, I emailed them a link.
By the end of May, I had done 461 cold calls — and had absolutely no assignments to show for it.
But then, in early June, I got completely swamped with work, most of it from new clients I got from my calls. That continued until early September, when I had a glorious week of quiet (and didn’t mind). But now I’m swamped again.
So what does this mean for you? Well, if you’re blessed with a solid education, bombproof network, and great industry credentials, maybe nothing. But here are five things I’ve learned from the whole experience:
  1. Anyone can do this. When it comes to marketing and self-promotion, sorry, but there’s no way you’re more clueless at this than I am. You don’t need a ton of experience. You don’t need amazing sales skills. You don’t need a polished phone voice. (Seriously. Mine is this horrible combination of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and redneck. Yes, the people I cold call actually giggle sometimes.) You just need a plan — and the motivation to stick to it.
  2. Be persistent. I called for two months before I landed an assignment in my acceptable pay range. I got a few nibbles, mostly from prospects who ran the other direction when they found out I wasn’t going to crank out dozens of 800-word articles for $5 a pop. Don’t let this stop you. Call each day until you reach your goal. As Peter Bowerman says — it’s about effort, not results.
  3. They want to hear from you. I’ve found that people are surprisingly open to cold calling. After all, you’re selling a valuable service, and you’re saving them the potential hassle of shopping around for it. In those 400+ calls, I’ve had only one person get really grumpy with me. (He worked at two nonprofits and I called both. Who knew.) However, I had a handful of prospects who picked up the phone and acted like they had been sitting around all year waiting for a writer to call.
  4. Set your minimum hourly rate — and stick to it. Because I was looking to grow my business, I tended to be unrealistically lenient about rates during my initial cold-call campaign. Not only does this lead to resentment and aggravation, it takes up time that could be spent securing better-paying work. So before you take on a client for peanuts, consider the risks. If you settle into a regular relationship, are you willing to continue at this wage? Also, think about the precedent you’re setting for other freelancers with whom this prospect may work in the future.
  5. Follow up. As your making your initial round of cold calls, keep track of your contacts in a spreadsheet. Whenever you find someone especially receptive, highlight that name. About once a month, go back and touch base and let them know you’re accepting new projects. I actually did my first round of follow-ups last week and immediately grabbed a plum little project and two client meetings that I hope will lead to more.
I realize cold calling may not be for everyone, but if you’re starting from the ground up like I was, I really encourage you to give it a try. It’s a great feeling to know that you really can go out there, hunt down work, and ultimately have some control over your own income.

Sarah Maurer blogs at Cold Calling for Wimps. You can follow her @coldcallwriter on Twitter.
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