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

Carol Tice | 54 Comments

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.

54 comments on “One Writer’s Top 5 Lessons from Making 461 Cold Calls

  1. Elisha Spencer on

    Thank you so much Sarah for your story. This is my first day cold calling and I’m glad I got over my fear but I haven’t gotten any leads yet so this gives me encouragement. 🙂

  2. John Detlefs on

    I realise that this is an older post, but I’ve found that cold calling is made a lot easier if you turn it into a game. While doing cold calling I used to have a piece of paper next me and after each call I’d write down my new “pitching count”.

    ie first call “swing and a miss” 0 and 1
    next call “swing and a miss” 0 and 2
    next call “strike!” – I talked to a decision maker, got a name and details. 1 and 2.

    And then I’d work all day trying to get a batter “out” by getting 3 strikes before I got 4 balls.

    It completely removes the fear of rejection, and I found that after a while I couldn’t wait to get to the next call to see if I could get a strike.

    I’ve passed that game on to sales staff of mine and have also had great results.

    Try it, or something like it if you don’t like baseball, I promise it works!


    John Detlefs

    • John Detlefs on

      I should add to that, and say that it’s pretty unrealistic to get 3 hits for every 7 calls, and so I’d give myself 10 “balls” for every 2 strikes.

      As you get into the groove it really starts to happen.

  3. Jennifer Stewart on

    I’m reading this in October 2012 and it’s still incredibly useful! I need and want to create a business as a freelance writer and editor and have been despairing that I don’t have the experience or qualifications that everybody seems to be asking for in the job ads.

    Reading where you started from has inspired me no end. And I love what you say about not selling yourself short. I refuse to, for the same reasons you state, but it’s good to get affirmation. Thanks a million!

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Jennifer —

      As a writer who’s held two staff jobs that required a journalism degree when I lack one…you’ve just got to not get hung up on that whole stated requirements issue. If you think you can do it, just go for it.

  4. Vonetta on

    More & more, I’m becoming a fan of cold calling. I used to be afraid of it, but the more I do it, the easier it becomes. Many liken it to telemarketing, but I don’t see it that way at all. Really, you’re just a “real” person inquiring about working with a company’s department as a freelance writer–nothing shady about that. I try to be straightforward and upbeat, rather than sales-y–and although I’ve gotten a lot of “we handle everything in-house,” I’ve never encountered any rudeness or hangups.

    I’m going to try to up my daily call quota–as really, the amount of calls I make per day is the thing I CAN control! One of my biggest challenges right now is getting distracted w/ various random things, lol. But I’m a firm believer in receiving the same positive energy & effort one puts out there. 🙂

  5. cold water on

    Hi Sarah! this is amazing 🙂 I havent tried cold calling but I think I’ll try. hahaha 😀 better try to experience something new right? thank you so much for this sarah!

  6. Jeanna on

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you so much for sharing! As a newbie freelancer, it really put a spark under me to get out there and start making those calls. I’ve started making my list. 🙂

  7. Michael on

    Cold calling – I really haven’t tried it. Although some of the clients I write for since 2010, all came via guest posts I did on A-list blogs. I think in addition to cold calling, we should focus on writing for other blogs via guest posting, you may not know who is reading.

  8. Samie on

    I just finished reading the Well-Fed Writer, but I’ve been terrified to try cold calling. Especially in my area, most people here think English majors only want to teach.
    But this is really encouraging. Especially since my area (Utah) is expanding with a lot of new companies!

    I just have one question- did you call all kinds of companies, regardless of whether you thought they might need it or not? I’m worried a lot of companies won’t think that they need freelance writers.

    • Carol Tice on

      How do you know what they need? You don’t. So just call and find out. If you have a writing specialty, concentrate on companies in your sector just to give it a focus and keep it from being too huge of a company list…or cut it by company size, or any way you like.

      Just call. Don’t be worried that a lot of companies don’t use freelance writers. A lot DON’T. The point of cold calling is to find the ones that do.

      Sarah laid out her whole system for doing it in my podcast…join the Den to take a listen.

  9. NextGen Writer on

    Hi Maurer, I have a similar story. I quite my job as an IT Engineer from the leading telecom company of my country by the end of 2010 to become a freelance writer. I have tried cold calling, but it has yet to pay off and I am still on it. However, so far marketing, especailly SEO, is blessing me.

  10. Neeraj Sachdeva on

    Hi, very interesting article, and definitely very useful.

    I currently live and freelance in India. Locally, the rate of pay is not very high (people are willing to do something for $2ph, for which I charge $15ph). As you can see there is high disparity and hence, I feel it would be very difficult for me to work with any Indian clients, especially since they are stingy to local employees. How can I tackle this situation?


    • Sarah Maurer on

      Trade you? =)

      Experience and clips definitely helps. No denying. I still get people all the time who ask, “Have you written a white paper?” And I haven’t, though sometimes they’ll accept something similar (an advertorial or a free report type thing).

      Of course, some people/companies are less picky than others. And some aren’t picky as they should be. Not that I’m complaining.

  11. Jodi Hughey on

    This is amazing and refreshing! For once it’s nice hearing the truth. Cold calling is scary but beneficial to the fledgling writer.

    One of my biggest issues is finding the right words to say. I like Sarah’s simple approach and can easily hear myself saying, “Do you have a need for an occasional or ongoing writer?”

    I am inspired by Sarah’s determination and ability to overcome fear. I will take her lessons to heart and get my fingers ready for some dialing!

    Thanks for confidence booster, Sarah!

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Aw, thanks and your welcome.

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure clients know I’m reading from a script. I mean, it totally sounds like a script. But if I’m offering them something they need, I figure they probably don’t really care. The script is just to break the ice, and then you can talk pretty naturally.

  12. Ayo on

    Great info. Sarah.

    The 5th point is a great eye-opener for me – follow up. I now understand how to make idle times more useful.

    Thank you.

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Yeah, we didn’t really talk about this much during the actual webinar, but I couldn’t believe how much response I got just by sending a quick “tickler” email to the “warm” and “hot” prospects I’d identified. Once you’ve made that initial contact, the cold prospects become warm ones, which are a lot easier to deal with!

  13. Michele on

    Great idea! My day job is talent recruitment, so the phone isn’t so scary – until it’s myself I’m trying to sell! I’d love to see a follow up post on building prospects – who all was on your list (you mentioned non-profits, which perked my ears). I’m very much a newbie and poking my toes in the water with freelancing, and what I lack is starting point. For whom? About what? Writing the piece seems to be the easy part…

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Michelle, like you I’m still finding my niche, but I’d say the cold calling has definitely helped with that. If you cast your net wide, you get exposure to a lot of different clients and industries and you start to develop definite preferences. I always knew I liked health writing, but I’m finding I also enjoy real estate. I’ve also found that high-brow type copy is not my niche.

      I’ve written a few posts about prospects and developing a client lists over on my blog which you might find helpful.

  14. Sarah Maurer on

    Hello all and thanks for all the great comments! Looking forward to answering some of your questions online, and I’ll definitely stop back here and try to hit any we miss.

  15. Linda Bryant on

    Thanks so much. This helps me know how important the tone of a call is. Seems like if you call in a way that’s informational and collegial (not a hard sell) it’s not so scary. Really looking forward to your webinar today!

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Oh, definitely not a hard sell. It’s so different from traditional cold calling, the you barely feel rejection! And you’re very much doing folks a service — I think most people have no idea where to shop for a writer when they need one.

  16. Ruth - Freelance Writing Blog on

    Hi Sarah – I just wrote about this same topic a couple days ago! We should chat! I agree with your points – and haven’t you found that the more you do it, the easier it becomes? There is a lot of stigma and fear associated with cold calling that is unwarranted. Thanks for helping to dispel the myths.

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Thanks for the comment — and yes! It does get easier. The first day was so scary for me. But I think by the time I hit 50-100 it was all very matter-of-fact. Actually, it switched from scary to kind of boring (which was a whole nother hurdle to get over).

  17. Carrie Schmeck on

    1. I bought The Well-Fed Writer just minutes before reading this.
    2. You give me courage as I wonder if all my footwork will ever pay off. Thank you for telling me you had no assignments (at first) after all those calls.
    3. The few times I have actually picked up the phone have been probably 90% more successful than when I’ve just emailed. I have an appointment today from an email/follow-up/cold call progression.

    As usual, pertinent information on this blog. Thanks!

  18. Tiffany Barry on

    I wonder whether similar strategies can be applied to email marketing prospective clients. I’m a stay at home mom, and my current clients understand that they will most likely hear my 4 year old in the background. However, I’m a tried and true investment with them, so they don’t mind. I’ve been hesitant to try cold calling with my daughter home. Until she goes to preschool, I’ve been simply contacting via email.

    Do you think the same tactics apply to email marketing? A well put together email to a direct person (not info@) and just mass numbers of them?

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Tiffany, I’ve often wondered about this too. Certainly there are people that have a lot of success with targeted, tailored emails, but is it possible to just do it with a more generic email? I suspect it might be. If you try it, let us know!

  19. Lori on

    Sarah, thanks for this post. Our backgrounds are so similar, it makes your words that much more convincing. Like most people, I loathe cold calling, but if I want to kick things up, it’s looking like it’s worth the try. I’m hoping to join you later today!

  20. Barbara on

    Wow – this is encouraging! I’m sitting here with a list of prospects before me, with my guts all twisted in a knot. Thanks to you, any minute now, I might actually call one of them!

    • Sarah Maurer on

      Oh, I hope you do! The first few SUCK (sorry, they really do), but I promise you it will get easier. That initial fear is a pretty small price to pay, considering the potential benefits. Good luck.

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