Why Sales Reps Screw Up the Initial Call

The No. 1 reason your salespeople may be botching their first contact with potential clients

Written by Matthew Cook

The saying that “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” applies in spades when it comes to sales calls. Salespeople are the voice of your company, and every person they reach can have a positive or damaging effect on your firm’s reputation and bottom line. Yet sales reps—some of whom may work for your company—are blowing initial sales calls to prospects even as you read this because of a totally avoidable mistake.

The top reason for blown calls probably isn’t the one you would expect. It’s not that salespeople are falling short in terms of their selling style or their techniques for handling objections. Rather, it’s something that’s as simple as it is surprising: a lack of proper preparation for the call.

Preparing for an initial sales call—whether by phone or in person—is critical to the process of beginning to move a person from a prospect to a customer. In order to prepare properly, a sales rep should understand what the company does, who the prospect is and what would motivate this person to buy. This sounds like pretty basic stuff, but it’s remarkable how many reps fail to carry out this essential task.

In a few cases, the salesperson is simply lazy. But most of the time the problem arises from a combination of the pressure to hit certain metrics, such as making 10 new business calls a week, and a failure to understand how much of a difference preparation can make on sales results. If you ensure that your salespeople spend just a few extra hours per week preparing properly for initial calls, they’ll land far more business.

To understand just how important it is for reps to prepare properly, I’m going to dissect a real-life example in which a rep got off to such a disastrous start that there’s no way I’d buy what he was selling. Here’s what I heard recently from a sales rep contacting me for the first time:

“Hey there, Matty, this is ____ from Company XYZ. I’m calling because I thought you might be interested in our product Z. We’ve had a bit of a slowdown in our business, so we’re dropping our price by $8,000 and wanted to reach out to see if you might be interested. I don’t know much about your business, but I’d like to tell you more about our product.”

Wow! This was perhaps the worst opening for a sales call I have ever heard. Yet, even though this is an extreme case, failures of this sort are quite common. And the following analysis of the four ways in which this rep failed to prepare properly also applies to less extreme instances of this blunder.


Let’s call the salesperson who made this call Peter. He probably spent little time thinking before he picked up the phone and called me. The most important thing to understand before you make a sales call is who is going to be on the other end of the line.

In the past, it was difficult to gather this type of information. These days, thanks to LinkedIn and other social media sites, obtaining this information is easy—and necessary—to do before you make a call or meet a prospect in person. LinkedIn will reveal about the people you’re about to call a wealth of information on their past jobs, university and schools they attended and any people you may know in common. Peter made a big mistake by not knowing who I was or what level I was at within my company. Had he done so, he probably wouldn’t have called me “Matty.”


Peter may have had the best product in the world, but after that opening it would have been tough for me to take him seriously. However, he made another critical mistake in not understanding which industry I’m in.

This may seem like common sense, or you may think that your product and service can be sold to anyone, but that simply isn’t the case. This particular product had no practical application to my business—or, indeed, to our entire industry. Had Peter taken even 10 minutes to understand the industry and what it is we actually do, he would have quickly realized that it’s a waste of time calling anyone in our space. His sales manager or business owner would blow a gasket if she knew how much time Peter was wasting calling on someone in the wrong industry.


Another failing of poor Peter is that he didn’t come armed with anything that might have caught my attention. If he had mentioned that a competitor was interested in or already using his product (forgetting for a second that it has no application to our industry), I might have had more of an interest in listening to him.

Business owners are always looking for something that can help their business make money, save money or save time. Understanding what other companies are doing in a particular industry can give your salespeople a leg up on the competition by showing that you’ve taken the time to understand the sector. Failing to understand the competitive landscape will lead to failure.


This is different from understanding the person in one distinct way. Understanding a person’s background and role helps a rep determine whether this is the right person to talk to. In contrast, understanding the prospect’s persona and how he or she buys is important to know because it will help you adopt the right sales approach.

Had Peter known that my title is CEO, he likely wouldn’t have called me by the overly familiar name of Matty. Had he been calling on a CFO, Peter should have understood that the prospect likely has a highly analytical mindset, so Peter should have focused on data about his product and how it could improve the firm’s bottom line. And had be been calling on a VP of sales, Peter might have realized that this is someone most interested in how what Peter was selling could help the VP’s team sell more. Understanding the personas of the people behind the titles give you an idea of how you need to sell to them.

So how should Peter have handled this call? After preparing, it probably would have gone something like this:

“Hello, Mr. Cook. I know you’re a busy person, so I’ll be brief. I read about the recent hiring you’ve gone through and wanted to see if I can send you some information about how we’ve helped other companies in your space save time and money using our product. Would that be OK? Great. Would it be alright if I follow up at a convenient time for you? Great. I’ll call next Tuesday at the same time. I appreciate your time. ”

By approaching the call this way, it would have shown me that Peter had done some homework on our company, on recent changes, on myself and on challenges I may have and understanding what my motivations are for buying a product or service. Had Peter approached me like this, I would at least have given him a chance to let me know more about his company.

Matthew Cook has 17 years of sales and sales management experience, primarily in the financial services and staffing industries. He is founder of SalesForce Search Ltd., which was No. 4 on the PROFIT HOT 50 ranking of Canada’s Top New Growth Companies in 2010 and No. 19 in 2011.

More columns by Matthew Cook

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