How to Write the Perfect “Cold Call” Email to Get Feedback and Sales

17 Dec

Keep it very short, focused, and goal-oriented.

My post on the 5 things that don’t make you an entrepreneur generated a ton of questions. Many people asked about how to reach out to potential customers to validate whether there’s a need for your product.

“Cold Call” Emails

When done correctly, “cold call” emails can be surprisingly effective for both startup founders and sales teams in order to start discussions with decision-makers at large companies.

At Zenput, we successfully did this to sell to senior execs at large publicly-traded companies. And when I was working on my idea (mentioned previously), I used cold emails to get feedback from marketing VPs at large retailers, even though I didn’t have a business, website or anything more than an idea.

Once you get over a couple of mental hurdles, and understand how to use email to generate sales leads or feedback, this technique can be incredibly powerful for both entrepreneurs and sales people.

Some Philosophical Keys to Emailing Strangers

There are two keys to understanding cold call emails: (1) the objective of the email; (2) the numbers game.

First, the goal of cold emails is to start a conversation. That’s it. You are not selling and not pitching through your email, you’re only starting a conversation. You actually need to forget about your solution and focus on your contact’s problem. You are just trying to find people with the problem you want to solve. And realistically that’s the only  reason someone will respond to an email from a stranger – they have an important problem that they really want to solve. Your goal through this process is to talk to them about, and understand, their problem. Your email should be directed to that, and nothing else.

Second, emailing strangers fails – most of the time. But that’s okay. Once you internalize that, and understand that your overall success rate will be in the single digits, your whole approach will change. Send out 20 emails, and if you’re lucky you’ll get one or two responses. Send out 100, and you’ll get a whole handful of responses. (By the way, how do you come up with those email addresses? See the bottom of this post.)

You will only start to succeed with cold emails when you understand what they do – they help you figure out who your customers will be, what problems they need solving, and hopefully they will generate some quality leads.

But that’s all a cold email can do. And there’s still lots of heavy lifting from there, but that is a great place to start.

So what goes into that email?

In my mind, here are four of the five main components. We’ll get to the fifth afterwards.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 11.43.05 AM

1. Put a ton of thought into the subject line.

Think about what you see when you open your inbox in the morning. Two things: the sender and the subject line. Within less than a second, you’ve decided whether to open or delete the first message you see.

Are either of these subject lines remotely interesting to open?

Are either of these subject lines remotely interesting to open?

Because the recipient doesn’t know you, you need to create a reason to open the email. But you need to do so without sounding scammy or like you’re trying to sell something (which, remember, you’re not, at this stage).

Focus on the problem you’re trying to solve. Try to create some urgency.

So let’s say you’re creating a mobile app that helps corporations with their travel planning. There’s a temptation to have a subject line like:

• Eliminate travel logistics hassle
• Reduce travel costs

But those are clearly marketing emails, selling a solution. All you want to do is identify a problem to chat about. So focus on the problem, and try to create a small sense of urgency:

• Recent problems with local air travel
• Travel costs exceeding travel budget

At Zenput, using emails that have focused on the problem rather than the solution, we had open rates exceeding 40%. The more compelling the subject, the more eyeballs you have reading the actual email. It’s that simple.

2. How to begin the email.

This is tricky. You’ve convinced someone to open the email, but how do you get beyond the first paragraph when they realize you’re asking them for something? Two strategies.

First, make it clear that you don’t know the person. Use a phrase that’s polite but honest about why you’re contacting them. Something as simple as “I wanted to reach out about . . .”

And then, second, follow up with social proof. This is key. You need to convince them why they should keep listening. Ideally, you can tell them about someone else using your product or who has written an article about your product. Or, find some connection – anything – even if it’s just a common LinkedIn group, a demonstrated shared interested, or some relevant achievement from your past. But find something that gives the reader confidence that it’s worth their time talking to you.

3. Keep the email unbelievably short and don’t bother personalizing it

There’s a natural temptation to tailor every word in the email to speak directly to each person you’re contacting. Here’s the truth: it’s not worth it (unless you have some specific personal connection – see Social Proof above). The recipient is not going to spend enough time reading your email for it to matter.

Either you’ve identified a sufficiently big problem in their work that they’re willing to respond, or they’ll hit delete. Overly personalizing the email won’t change that. In fact, it will probably distract attention from the business problem during the five seconds of mindshare your email will get. This is a numbers game, and hyper-personalizing just takes too long. Your time is better spent finding more people to email rather than trying to hyper-target a small handful.

Your entire email should be four crisp, succinct sentences. Anything more than that simply won’t get read by most people. Remember again that this is a numbers game.

4. Have a single, clear “ask” in your email.

Remember that the point of the email is to start a conversation. You’re trying to validate a market need, and learn more information. Don’t ask multiple questions or be ambiguous – get to the point with a single “ask,” which is the single thing you’re trying to get from the email. If you want to talk to the person (almost always the goal), a question like “Who is the right person in your organization to get on your calendar for a brief 5-minute conversation?” will often get a good response.

5. Do a quick follow-up email to non-responders

Just like in real life, persistence pays off. A quick follow-up message a week later to people who didn’t respond often gets a good yield. You’re sending the message that (1) you’re really interested in this problem; (2) you’re not going away if they just ignore you.

I know some sales people who actually start with the follow-up message. They create the template for the main/original message, stick it at the bottom of an email and make it appear like they sent it a week earlier, and “reply” to their “message” with the follow-up! They’ve found this more effective at generating responses than the original email. And the recipients will just assume they deleted the phantom first email or forgot about they received it.

Okay, but how do I actually do all this?

The above is relatively simple, but you still need (1) a list of email addresses; (2) a way to mail merge and send the emails.

There are some great services like Hiplead that will do all of this for you, at a price. (This is geared towards sales teams.)

But at a small scale, you can be a scrappy entrepreneur and do it manually yourself without cost. You can use Linkedin or industry websites to identify your targets. You can then use to figure out the company’s email address format. You can also hire workers via oDesk to do the grunt work for you, once you’ve figured out the process for yourself.

You can do the mail merging manually via Google Drive, or you can pay a service like ToutApp $30/mo. to do this for you (they provide useful analytics too).

You will then want to set up a spreadsheet to track your results, so you can figure out which subject lines and message bodies are most effective.

And then, of course, you need to prepare for the phone calls that will follow, remembering that your job is to ASK QUESTIONS and to LISTEN, not to sell. You cannot sell anything until you really understand the details of your target’s business and the specifics of their problem.

All of this takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, but can produce excellent results at a very low cost.


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