Cold Calling: An Age-Old Form of Simple Sabotage

by in Sales

In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) compiled a field manual of tactics aimed at sabotaging enemies of the United States during World War II. Several of the tactics detailed in the Simple Sabotage Field Manual are surprisingly relevant today and have direct correlations to the modern workplace. One of today’s manifestations of simple sabotage is cold calling. This productivity-crushing activity wreaks havoc on both the attacker (the sales rep) and the victim (the prospective customer).

The Simple Sabotage Manual focuses primarily on “simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform,” noting that “simple sabotage does not require specially prepared tools or equipment; it is executed by an ordinary citizen.”  Indeed, cold calling is a simple act deployed almost ubiquitously by sales reps. It requires little more than a telephone and an unfortunate victim to ambush.

Why, you may ask, is cold calling an especially detrimental form of sabotage?

1. It zaps productivity:

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual advocates for the use of simple sabotage as a means of undermining productivity. The advice reads as follows:

Put any clogging substance into lubrication systems … Twisted combings of human hair, pieces of string, dead insects, and many other common objects will be effective in stopping or hindering the flow of oil.” 

Cold calling is akin to a “clogging substance” in the day-to-day routine of a sales rep. The average sales development rep makes 46 calls daily. What’s more, they have little to show for their efforts: the average rep expends an estimated 7.5 hours on cold calling to secure just one qualified appointment! The time that sales reps devote to cold calling inevitably zaps overall productivity.  Aaron Ross, renowned sales coach and best-selling author of Predictable Revenue, explains: “Making the field salespeople do cold calls means having your highest-cost (per hour) sales resource perform the lowest-value (per hour) activity.”

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Some companies have outwardly recognized the treason that cold calling casts on sales reps’ productivity. In 2003, spurred by the realization that cold calls were ineffective and sales reps exhibited a strong aversion to them, launched an initiative called Cold Calling 2.0. The tactic, which ultimately helped achieve $100M of recurring revenue in just 4 years, is a misnomer in that it does not entail a single cold call. Instead, it involves devoting added time to prospecting and the determination of which prospects exhibit the highest buying propensities. Cold Calling 2.0 required a shift from dialing as many numbers as possible to connecting with as many pre-qualified accounts as possible. Within a mere four months, successfully increased its pipeline per sales development rep by 300%!

2. It drains sales rep morale

The Simple Sabotage Field Manual offers cautionary advice for aspiring saboteurs:

“Since the effect of his own acts is limited, the saboteur may become discouraged.” 

This advice ought to resonate with most sales reps today as discouragement and rejection looms large. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling compelled to engage in the archaic and arduous act of cold calling. It’s well documented that cold calling is despised by sales reps. Speak to most sales reps and they’ll say that cold calling feels like an item to check off on a daily to-do list. SalesDrive explains: “There seems to be no such thing as a salesperson that loves cold calling.” And who can blame these high-priced, seemingly hands-tied individuals? According to Keller Research Center at Baylor University, 72% of cold calls result in outright rejections.

Rejection stings. A book recently penned by sales professional Jerry Hocutt boasts a telling tongue-in-cheek title: “Cold calling, Like a Colonoscopy, is a Pain in the Butt.” Constantly faced with rejection, sales reps are highly susceptible to burnout. Is it surprising that, in a survey of 342 SaaS companies, a DePaul University Sales Effectiveness survey found there was a 28% turnover across sales teams? What’s perhaps even more tangible to grasp is the finding that the average cost of replacing a sales rep is almost $15,000.

3. It’s inefficient:

The Simple Sabotage Manual also addresses sabotage by way of tactics that lead to grinding halts in workflow. It advises:

Put several pinches of sawdust or hard grain, such as rice or wheat into the fuel tank of a gasoline engine. The particles will choke a feed line so that the engine will stop.”

Cold calling is a pursuit that involves “choking” a sales rep’s efficiency engine, resulting in low conversion rates. According to Baylor University’s Keller Center for Research, a meager 1% of cold calls ultimately convert into appointment. Scott Farquhar, co-CEO of software giant Atlassian explains, “Customers don’t want to call a salesperson if they don’t have to…They’d much rather be able to find the answers on the website.”

It’s not all gloom and doom. There is some cause for hope that times are changing. Dismal conversion rates have spurred some companies like Atlassian to put cold calling efforts by the wayside. Atlassian doesn’t have a single sales rep. Instead it relies on word-of-mouth and positive referrals. Results speak for themselves. Today, Atlassian is used by more than 80 Fortune 100 companies. Equally impressive is the fact that the company sold $320M worth of business software in 2015.

4. It threatens customer relationships: 

Though written decades ago, the Simple Sabotage Field Manual was remarkably forward-thinking in recognizing the destructive nature of unsolicited telephone calls. The manual advises readers:

Hamper official and especially military business by making at least one telephone call a day to an enemy headquarters.

Any act that hampers the victim’s day-to-day affairs smells of sabotage. It’s as though sales reps read the Field Manual before first architecting cold calling. There’s no room in today’s competitive marketplace for compromised relationships with prospects and existing customers. Cold calls are disruptive and threaten customer relations. A study by InsideView found that 90% of executives will not take a cold call or respond to an email blitz message. Cold calls are disruptive. Brandon Cipes, VP of information systems at software company OceanX, likens cold calling to purchasing a car: “Most of our effort is trying to get the salespeople to leave us alone.” 

Sabotage is not the name of the game when it comes to effective and efficient customer outreach. It’s time companies scrap ineffective cold calling practices from their arsenals. Farquhar offers a simple simile that speaks volumes to the sabotaging nature of cold calling: “Salespeople are like your Adderall right before the exam…It’s that last-minute kick when you’re not going to do well otherwise.”



About The Author

Rebecca Hinds
Rebecca Hinds - View more articles

Rebecca Hinds graduated from Stanford University in 2014 with a M.S. in Management Science and Engineering. In 2013, Rebecca co-founded Stratio, a semi-conductor company developing infrared sensors. The company was selected by the Kairos Society as one of the 50 most innovative student-run businesses in the world.