We all understand the power of first impressions, and our need to quickly create emotional connections in order to move, persuade, convince and sell. But we sometimes forget that cutting through the marketing clutter also applies to phone calls. 

I love the fact that some of the best moments in life are the unscripted ones. We don’t plan or prepare for them, we often don’t even know they are coming, they just happen. 

Usually though, I have found it works best to have a plan. Especially when you’re trying to sell yourself, or your company's products or services, via a phone call or voicemail message.

Do as I say, not as I do

Right before I started 3 Second Selling, I wasn't quite clear about my next career move, and I began prospecting for new opportunities, literally from coast to coast.

I found one position in particular I was very interested in. It was a very senior position at an organization that is the number one company of its kind in the country, and debatably, maybe even the world. 

Several years ago I had the chance to meet - and spend time with - the founder/CEO of this company in a very unusual setting that I figured he would be able to recall. So I decided to overnight my cover letter and materials directly to him.

As I was writing that letter the words were flowing. Fast. I was in the zone. Just as the basketball player who knows his shot is good the instant he releases it, I knew I was nailing it.  

And I figured it was just a matter of time, a short period of time I thought, before my letter generated a response. Because there was no doubt I was their guy. 

My letter and materials didn’t generate a response. Not for three months anyway. And by that time I had long forgotten about this opportunity to be honest.

So when an email arrived in my inbox from the HR Director of this company, it took me by surprise.

I was on deadline for a writing assignment at the time the email came through, and I laid it aside momentarily.

When I got back to it, I saw the email was very specific in nature. There were four questions: 1) Was I still interested? 2) Would I relocate? 3) Could I state a salary range? 4) Would I be available to Skype about the job some time soon?

As a journalist, speaker and sales trainer, I am often the one asking the questions, but I think I am pretty good at answering them.

And if that is what I had done, simply answered the questions that were asked, my life might have taken a different course.

However, instead of fashioning a response via a succinct, streamlined, straight-to-the-point email reply, I decided to pick up the phone, immediately after I finished my deadline task. 

I remember thinking to myself, literally as I was dialing, that maybe I should think it through a little bit, at least plan for the first words out of my mouth. But I didn't. 

Because I also remember thinking to myself that the HR Director would be able to immediately deduce that I was energetic, and passionate...and spontaneous

That last part didn't work out too well. 

I got her voicemail. And what she got was a stupid, rambling, incoherent "message" from someone who managed to immediately negate their awesome cover letter and considerable professional experience and personal connection and instead immediately put themselves in the reject pile.

What did I do wrong? Everything. So here are a few tips perhaps you can use to learn my mistakes.

  1. Know your audience. Are you talking to a creative type, where banter and word play and some attempts at humor might be met with enthusiasm? Or do you need to play it straight? If you are communicating with someone for the first time, you probably need to keep it short and succinct, regardless. That is particularly true when leaving a voicemail, where you have no verbal cues and feedback about “how the conversation is going.” Above all, keep it professional. And don’t leave a VM with a reference to Austin Powers and mojo in the first 30 seconds of your recording, as I did. Yes, I did.
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  2. Know your intent. What are you trying to accomplish with the call? Are you trying to make an impression? Make a point? Make a sale? Determine the end game before you place the call.
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  3. Have a plan. Now that you know what you want to accomplish, have at least a rough idea of how you are going to do that. What are the first words out of your mouth? Know what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Have one version for an actual conversation if a live person answers, and another if you are leaving a voicemail.
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  4. Be deliberate. Own the moment. As Malcolm Gladwell chronicled so well in the book Blink, we all make very sophisticated decisions with very “thin slices” of information. Make this principle work for you, and not against you, as I did. You can never fully undo or take back a first impression.
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  5. Stick to the script. This doesn't mean a robocall. It doesn't mean being stuck on autopilot and saying the same thing to every prospect every time. It simply means thinking in advance about what you are going to say and then delivering that, resisting the temptation to be cute, funny, or as in my case, spontaneous.  

I did 3,000 news stories as a television news reporter and can think on my feet with the best of them. But I simply did not think this phone call through.

I didn’t give ample thought to what this HR person does for a living and her role in this hiring process, I didn’t work through my intent and I certainly didn’t have a plan or a script.

I winged it, simply picking up the phone, anxious to win her over with my energy and enthusiasm and whatever else I could throw into a voicemail message.

Like any accident, there are a lot of variables in this scenario and if any of them had been different, maybe the outcome would have been different as well.

As it happened, there was a perfect storm, a toxic stew of goofs and miscues and omissions and too much information that all conspired to make this woman’s job – move me on or move me out – all too easy.

So whether you are discussing an open position with a recruiter or HR person, or you are the one talking to candidates and doing the hiring, a little forethought goes a long ways. 

Talking on the telephone is more difficult than conversing in person. It takes many of us out of our comfort zone. But by harnessing the power of first impressions, and preparing for a call with the same planning you would use for a personal meeting, you'll increase the likelihood the interaction will be a successful one. 

Tags: Sales training, HR, Human Resources, Hiring, Sales Calls, David Gee, 3 Second Selling™, Sales tips, Phone selling