Senior business executives process hundreds of emails every day, many of them salespeople asking for a piece of the executive’s most precious possession – his or her time. With this kind of competition for an executive’s attention, many people believe cold email prospecting has no place in the sales toolbox. The reality is that if it’s done well, it can be the most powerful tool for predictably filling a B2B company’s sales funnel. I know because I’ve successfully implemented a system based on cold email prospecting for companies in a wide variety of fields.

For one global software company that targeted banks, over about 20 months of part-time effort, I personally dropped more than US$30 million in potential sales opportunities into the top of their sales funnel using cold email prospecting. These efforts resulted in the company acquiring its largest client, one of the world’s largest banks, and many other bank clients from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. Even though I haven’t worked with them in eight months, they report that sales opportunities I identified are still closing.

For another client, the system was so effective, a junior-level sales development representative (SDR) was able to schedule one introductory sales meeting with consumer product manufacturing companies for every two hours worked and half of these meetings turned into viable sales opportunities. For yet another client targeting U.S. hospitals, an industry with traditionally low email open rates, the system was still successful at predictably scheduling meetings with hospital executives.

How Does It Work?

The basic idea behind a cold email prospecting system is that a prospect receives a series of emails from an individual at the organization with the intent of arousing the prospect’s curiosity and getting them to commit to a phone call with one of the company’s sales executives. This seems like a simple idea, but the process only works if you are following the formula below, which enables the email to stand out among all the other emails the prospect receives:

right person + right message + right time = sales opportunity

The formula assumes that your company solves a real pain point for a specific type of person, known as a persona. The most common mistake companies make is trying to be all things to all people, which dilutes the message. In order to be successful and create a scalable system, the company’s focus needs to be narrow in order to have a compelling message. Consider the examples below.

No: We help small- to mid-sized companies put a strategic marketing plan in place

Yes: We help independent optometrists acquire new patients through a comprehensive strategic marketing plan

Notice in the first example how the company’s message tries to be all things to all people and the second example focuses in on a niche (optometry practices), a persona (independent optometrists) and has a results-focused message (acquire new patients). Optometrists who are struggling to make their practice profitable after years of schooling are more likely to wonder how your company has helped others like them and be willing to talk with you, whereas the first message doesn’t have the same impact.

Timing is also a factor, just like everything in sales. Ideally your company solves a pain point that a sizable marketplace is trying to solve at the same time. In the first example at the beginning of this article, my client who was targeting banks could solve a pain point that nearly every bank in the world was trying to solve at that moment – how to acquire new customers digitally rather than having them visit a bank branch.

Once we figured out the messaging, the whole system became powerfully scalable. The software company could effectively communicate in a short email that: 1) they could solve a problem the bank was actively trying to solve, 2) they could do it better than the bank could do it themselves, and 3) they had done it very successfully for other banks who were just like them. Many bank decision-makers were willing to give up 30 minutes of their time to find out more.

What About Cold Calling?

Cold calling is also part of the system, but it’s important to put it in proper perspective. As part of the system, I coach SDR’s on how to focus their time on the activities most likely to turn into an introductory sales call. Calling someone on the phone is a relatively expensive activity from a time perspective, even if the SDR has the prospect’s phone number, and many times they do not. Think about how many emails can be sent in the time it takes to look up a phone number, dial it, wait for an answer and typically end up leaving a voicemail. If the SDR has to go through the company’s switchboard to call the prospect, that takes even more time and reduces the likelihood of the executive answering the phone.

The ideal scenario is to use an email automation platform that will enable the SDR to focus on calling the prospects most engaged with the cold emails as evidenced by how many times the email is opened. For example, my preferred email automation platform, Outreach.io, can be configured to create a manual task for the SDR to call a prospect if an email sent is opened at least a certain number of times. That way the SDR is able to call only people with whom the message has resonated in some way rather than calling people for whom the message was meaningless.

Another factor to consider is the industry being targeted and how receptive they are to cold emails. I’ve found great variability between industries. In some industries the decision-makers conduct the vast majority of their business over email and almost no phone calls are required to get meetings scheduled with them. In other industries decision-makers seem to spend far less time on their email and require a voicemail or two in addition to the cold emails to engage them enough to agree to a phone call.

A final factor to think about when deciding which prospects to spend an SDR’s precious phone time on is how important the account is to the organization strategically. If there is little evidence the prospects at an account are engaged with the message, but you are confident you can make a big difference for them and there is a very high value in acquiring the account as a client, this is a good reason to spend extra time cold calling executives at that firm.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Once the SDR is scheduling meetings, the next critical piece in developing a scalable, predictable system is listening carefully to prospects on the intro calls for how they talk about their own pain points, how they phrase the solutions to these pain points and what they are most interested in. You may start out thinking your clients will be interested in solving one pain point only to find they care more about another problem you can solve for them.

This information should be fed back into the system and used to A/B test new cold email messages and see how well they perform compared to the existing messages. Over time, the SDR team should be able to very effectively communicate how the company solves a specific pain point for a specific persona and maximize response rates through an iterative process of testing, measuring and improving everything they do.

The initial messaging will typically start out fairly broad. Then feedback from prospects can be used to fine-tuned for individual personas. As the system matures, a chief transformation officer should receive a slightly different message than a chief technology officer. Some personas will be more responsive than others and more effort can be applied to the most responsive personas. Some personas will be abandoned completely either because they just don’t respond or they are not decision-makers and the sales team is not able to drive the sale process beyond the introductory call.

A final critical element to optimizing the system is measuring everything, not just email open rates and response rates to cold emails. It’s important to track other metrics like what percentage of responses are positive responses, hours worked per introductory meeting scheduled, what percentage of introductory meetings become viable sales opportunities, what percentage of these opportunities close within six months or 12 months and which lists of prospects perform best so you can get more lists just like them. Constant experimentation with an eye towards improving all the relevant metrics will result in a powerful lead generation machine that produces a very predictable flow of sales opportunities.

Conclusion

Cold email prospecting is a viable option for building a B2B lead generation machine. In order to be successful, the system needs to narrowly target the right people with the right message at the right time and not try to capture a broad array of people with a broad message. If structured correctly, the system enables testing and fine-tuning resulting in constant improvements to the results achieved. The system is highly measurable and can produce a steady, predictable stream of new sales opportunities to fill the company’s sales funnel.