Mastering the art of the cold call

Slammed doors, grumpy hang-ups par for the course

Chiropractor Ryan Hummel said cold calling can have its ups and downs, but can be a potentially lucrative way to introduce yourself to clients.

Heidi Schiller
   If the dreaded experiences of cold calling or door knocking were told as knock-knock jokes, their punch lines could include attack dogs, mistaken identities and icy-cold shoulders.
   But for many local businessmen, the act of ringing up a stranger or knocking on a door is a necessary — albeit nerve-wracking — evil in building a client base.
   “Cold calling, to me, is either done by telephone or face to face,” said Von Smith, an insurance agent for Bob Wallin Insurance. “‘Cold’ meaning no relationship; you don’t know them from Adam.”
   Here are a few of these local businessmen’s stories of how they mastered the art of the cold call.

Tim Villhauer
Investment representative,
Edward Jones

   Starting out as an investment representative for Edward Jones, Tim Villhauer began door knocking as a way to get his name out in the community.
   He’d go to upscale neighborhoods, introducing himself to whoever answered his knock. As a way to deal with the initial discomfort of showing up, unannounced, on someone’s doorstep, Villhauer recalled his childhood days in Iowa City selling newspapers.
   “It’s outside your normal comfort zone,” he said. “But it reminded me of being a kid selling newspapers.”
   Villhauer connected with some of his best clients through the door-to-door experience. In fact, 90 percent of people he met were friendly.
   In one of his best experiences, he struck up a conversation with a man who had worked in shipping. Villhauer, who spent six years in the Navy, immediately hit it off with him and although the man didn’t initially open an account, the moment paid off in the long run.
   “We had a natural connection and over time, we established an account and I’ve been able to really help him since then,” he said.
   “I had so many people that would give me hot drinks when it was cold out and cold drinks when it was hot out. And cookies, too,” he said.
   Not all of Villhauer’s door-knocking experiences have been as rosy, although he can laugh about them now.
   One house, in particular, fell into the ten percentile of not-so-nice homeowners. Villhauer opened the gate of its picket fence and surveyed the yard for dogs (because he’d found that most homes with fences tend to come with furry friends).
   No dogs, he breathed with relief — or so he thought.
   No one answered his knock on the door, and as soon as he turned around to leave he heard a loud panting sound.
   “I heard this heavy breathing so I just cranked that door open just before a German sheperd smashed against the fence,” he said. “It wasn’t barking, which meant it was a good watch dog.”
   The dog, having just missed its prey, trotted to the back of the house, where Villhauer saw it plop down and look up expectantly at the home-owner, who must have sicked the dog on him.
   Oftentimes while door knocking, he is mistaken for a missionary and most people are relieved he is from Edward Jones, although some are disappointed because they want to debate or convert him, he said.
   “If you do it enough, you’ll get all sorts of weird experiences. I’ve had people come out swearing at me,” he said. “I had one guy shred my business card into little tiny pieces.”
   Sometimes people are less friendly when caught at inopportune times, though that doesn’t necessarily result in a wasted knock.
   “One guy was watching the Mariners playoffs a few years ago and he just opened the door and said, ‘Dude, give me your card, the Mariners are on.’ A couple weeks later, he called,” Villhauer said.
   Villhauer doesn’t door knock now as much as he did in the beginning of his career, but still tries to get in a knock or two while out and about between meetings, or if he’s training a new Edward Jones employee.
   Sometimes it’s a good way for him to get out of the office on a sunny day, and as long as he takes it in stride, door knocking can be one of the most effective ways to touch base with potential clients.
   “People immediately know you’re a human. They learn a little bit about you and it can help establish trust,” he said. “There is no one best way to go. The main thing is to be yourself. People are people, and most people are very nice.”

Von Smith
Insurance agent,
Bob Wallin Insurance

   When Von Smith first started selling insurance in 1985, he made 150 cold calls a week for about a year. For every 10 calls he made, nine hung up, he said.
   He put up with the rejection to build a client base.
   “I was good at it, but I dreaded it,” he said. “But I had a family to feed.”
   For Smith, the hang-ups were the worst aspect of the call because of the sense of rejection he felt from it. But even when they didn’t hang up, sometimes the response he’d get was nearly as bad. Some people cursed or belittled him.
   Occasionally he’d get the standard, “Hey, why don’t you give me your phone number and I’ll call you during dinnertime,” he said.
   Then there were the people who had an entirely opposite response — the ones who wouldn’t stop talking. Smith said these people didn’t want to buy anything, but were lonely enough to keep him on the phone to discuss their personal views on life and politics or to recount their life stories.
   He also went door-to-door 10 times a week for three years, which was easier for him.
   “Face-to-face was easier for me because people could see you were human and the approach was always low key,” he said.
   One of his best door-to-door experiences occurred while he was training a new agent in Mount Vernon. The two approached the owner of a posh jewelry store who rebuked their health insurance offer.
   The trainee, who happened to be an accomplished pianist, asked if he could play the baby grand piano in the store’s lobby.
   “He commenced to play this beautiful piece. Everybody stopped what they were doing and watched,” he said. “I ended up selling a group health insurance plan for her employees.”
   Through all the tribulations, Smith said, his source of persistence came from having faith in his product, knowing that what he was selling was the best product out there that would benefit his customers.
   “The more you believe in it, and the more you think you’re making a difference — which I was — the easier it gets,” he said.
   While Smith doesn’t do much cold calling by telephone these days, he continues to go door-to-door on occasion, usually at businesses.
   And although cold calling can be time-consuming, Smith said it’s an effective way to market his business because he can so clearly see the fruits of his labor.
   “If I run an ad in a publication, it’s harder to measure results,” he said.

Dr. Ryan Hummel
Owner and chiropractor,
Life Chiropractic Center

   Dr. Ryan Hummel first went door-to-door to make contacts with potential clients while living in Ireland.
   Originally from Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Hummel traveled to Ireland to work as a chiropractor after graduation and said despite the stereotype of the friendly Irish, door knocking there involved more than a few cold shoulders.
   After opening his practice recently in Bellingham, Hummel decided to brave the doorsteps once more and visited 40 businesses near his King Street location. He introduced himself and handed out business cards with a free complimentary exam and consultation coupon printed on the back.
   This time, the shoulders were quite warm.
   “I enjoyed it. I’ve actually made a few friends this way,” he said. “At first it was nerve wracking, but as you do it a few times it gets easier.”
   Hummel said the cards help get people in, but more importantly, he thinks of door knocking as an outreach exercise to explain what chiropractic clinics do.
   “People don’t really understand how holistic it is,” he said.
   The key to door knocking, according to Hummel, is simply to act natural.
   “It’s not to go out there and try to sell something. Just present yourself, hand them your card and explain what you do. Don’t push people,” he said. “Now they’re more aware of (the practice) and can put a face to a name.”

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