We all receive them, but what is the best way to manage cold calls effectively?

One item that comes up regularly on the Academies PA Network that I chair is that of cold-callers, and people lying to us in order to reach the Principal or Chief Executive. This is not just an education-related issue, but something that I’ve experienced in every Assistant role I have ever held. My networking contacts around the world confirm this – cold-callers can be the bane of your life. As it is often the Assistant’s role to be the gatekeeper between the outside world and their manager, we need to be able to spot a cold-caller at 20 paces and know how to deal with them.

In the 15 years that I have spent in Assistant roles, I have heard from many salespeople who try to reach the head of my organisation by telephone in order to sell their products – many of these being services or items which have no relevance to our organisation, and many others being pitched to the entirely wrong person in the company. Some callers give details of their products, services or organisation – but a large number have attempted to use bullying or derogatory techniques to try to shame me into thinking that I am a lowly Assistant and the best thing I could do would be to put them straight through to my manager. Others still, have lied, saying that they met him at an event recently and he asked them to call him – which I check, and report back to them that the boss says he’s never heard of them, adding that he retains all business cards from people he meets, but doesn’t have theirs.

How, then, do you identify cold-callers quickly, deal with them politely, and what should you say when someone tries to push past you, as gatekeeper?

The typical cold-caller is selling something. Whether that is a product, service or a person (many recruiters will try to sell you a new member of staff who they believe is vital for your organisation). They will call and ask you to put them through to your manager – often without telling you who they are, where they are from or the nature of the call. Very few will admit that they are salespeople. When asked questions, they will be evasive or abrupt, sometimes even rude, in an attempt to get past you.

Often they will imply that the call is personal or private, or highly confidential. As a confidential Assistant though, they really ought to realise that you are the person they need to speak with! Some cold-callers will use ridiculously stupid tactics – I once took a call from someone who claimed to be my Chief Executive’s GP, but as I already knew the details of his GP’s surgery and the caller’s telephone number was from another county elsewhere in the country, it showed they weren’t even local. Some callers will blatantly lie in an attempt to reach the boss – often mistakenly believing that they are the one-and-only decision-maker with whom they need to speak, while others will claim to be personal friends.

One key to handling cold calls is to know your manager – whether they be your Principal, Head-teacher, Chief Executive, Managing Director or Chairman – very well. Get to know what they deal with, whom they deal with, and who they know on a personal basis, as well as their business contacts. Take responsibility for storing and cataloguing the business cards that they receive, and remind them to collect them when on their travels and to give them to you. When they do, ask for details on each person so that you can note these down. After all, if you know who they met recently and would be interested in hearing from, you are well prepared for when they call – and equally, you know who to turn away when they claim to be a personal or private contact.

When receiving a call from a number I don’t recognise, I often pause for a second to open an Internet Explorer window before answering the phone. That way, in the first few seconds of the call, I can then key their phone number into Google to see if their organisation details come up, or whether they are listed somewhere as a nuisance caller.

Another key is to get your manager’s approval that all his calls have to go through you. This way, you can immediately put through the important people – governors, board members, staff and genuine contacts, – and hold off the others – saying that you need to know the cold-callers’ reason for calling before your manager will take the call. When putting calls through, give your manager a quick précis of what you have been told by the caller, and remind them on a regular basis to let you know afterwards if a caller didn’t speak to them on that topic but on something else. This not only helps you to stay on top of the various projects which your manager is working on, but it also informs you when a cold-caller has slipped through the net, so you know to not put that person through again.

I often think that if the salespeople could only do their market research more thoroughly, then they would save us, and themselves, a huge amount of time. If they could aim their calls towards the most appropriate person at an organisation, rather than trying to bulldoze their way to the person at the top, it would make everything so much easier.

I’ve received so many calls about recruitment which should have been directed to the HR manager rather than the Chairman, and so many calls about corporate transport which should be directed to the person who actually books corporate transport – but the sales people concerned have been taught aggressive sales tactics that convince them that the only person at an organisation who can make a decision about anything is the head of that organisation. However, most discussions about suppliers or service providers are held at other management levels, by the people responsible for using those services. In the vast majority of cases, it is only when proposals have been factored, priced, compared with existing providers and weighed up fully, that the department manager will take the proposal to the head of the organisation for board approval.

I run a discussion forum for PAs, EAs, VAs and senior administrators on business networking site LinkedIn, and I’ve read some true horror stories of cold callers and salespeople who have stalked bosses or their assistants, pushed their way past receptionists, pursuaded their way into the building and made their way to the boss’s office, or out-and-out lied on the phone in order to reach the head of the organisation – all in the name of making an unsolicited cold call. One sales person turned up at an organisation and hung around reception at the end of the day, then ambushed a Chief Executive as he was leaving the building. The Chief Executive curtly told the salesman: ‘you either deal with my Assistant or no-one, do not attempt to deal with me again’.

Various comments from my contacts on dealing with cold-callers who insist they can speak with no-one but the boss include:

• ‘I’ve told cold-callers: “All of the CEO’s calls are taken by me. If you won’t talk to me about it, I’m afraid I cannot put you through to him. If you will let me know what you are calling about, it may be more appropriate that your call goes to another member of staff who has responsibility for that area, and I’ll try to put you through to them.” This generally works, and I can then redirect their call as appropriate.’

• ‘If a sales person is upfront and honest, I will help direct them to the correct person. The latest pitch I’ve been getting is that my manager indicated an interest in their product online, and asked that they get in touch with her, which I know is a total lie, and they call back every 2 or 3 weeks, thinking that I’m not intelligent enough to recognise them and their lame pitch. If my manager was interested in an online product, then I’d be the one contacting them about it.’

• ‘I ask the caller politely to recognise that part of my job is to screen the boss’s calls, and that I will not be able to put them through until I know what the call is about and I can vet their call.’

• ‘I’ve been on both sides of the desk – buyer and seller. As a buyer, I have the experience and knowledge to notice when a product has potential to help my company, and will be happy to talk to a sales rep. As a seller, I preferred to first invest the time and research to learn what problems my product could offer to solve in an organization, and then to focus on earning the right to both talk to and learn from the person who will benefit from the solution.’

• ‘I think a lot of sales people underestimate how much we actually know about the business our CEO is handling, and what we need at that time. You are better off working directly with the EA – but keep in mind that a sales call (to us) is still a sales call. If we have a need, you have treated us with respect for our time, and you aren’t pushy – we will probably come to you first when we have a need.’

• ‘Bottom of my list are sales calls from someone trying to use the CEO’s first name. “Is Fred there?” Really? If they knew Fred so well, they’d have his mobile phone number or his direct line….. those calls just make me laugh. They can keep calling me – Fred will still be in a never-ending meeting.’

My own standard response to anyone cold-calling is that all of our Senior Leadership Group, including the Principal, are very pressed for time and we don’t make decisions on any product or service on the strength of a phone call. If the caller could please send an email with all the necessary details regarding their company, their product or service, their website and their contact details, then I will read it and pass it on to the most relevant person in the Academy. If that person then wants to take things further, they will contact the caller. I ask the caller not to chase, but to accept that a nil response from us after a fortnight means that we do not require their services.

Some callers crop up on a regular basis, phoning year in, year out. This applies across all industries, including education. On the Academies PA network, linking PAs in over 170 Academies across the UK, members regularly report to each other when a known cold-caller starts ‘doing the rounds again’. Eevery year we get calls from the ‘Government Initiatives Office’ (who are nothing to do with the Government), ‘St James House’ (nothing to do with Royalty) and the ‘Parliamentary Yearbook’ (surprise, surprise – nothing to do with Parliament) – all of whom wish to urgently speak with our principals or head-teachers, on a personal, private matter. Year after year, PAs report to the network that callers from these organisations are even using the same script, which they attempt to read out over the phone. Year after year, we all turn them away and notify each other via the network, so that other Academies can be forewarned about their imminent calls.

One of my Assistant connections contacted me earlier this year saying: ‘I just had a caller who wants to speak to my MD about ”Her Majesty’s 85th birthday celebration”. I asked if this call was for an invitation to an event (knowing that it wasn’t). “No, no!” said the caller, he could not speak with me – he must speak with my Managing Director personally. The caller was aggressive, supercilious and rude. I have had dealings with this organisation before. They must think we are morons. I have tipped off all our directors. If he calls back, I shall be having a bit of fun…’

Another Assistant who makes regularly visits to Buckingham Palace, received the exact same call and asked their cold-caller which office they were in, as she might be able to pop in to see them that afternoon to discuss whatever they were calling about, before she made her way to the Palace for a meeting. Needless to say, the caller became somewhat flustered and was unable to answer.

The final word must go to the Assistant who told me: ‘I love cold calls: I recently told a double glazing salesman that he should pop round to price up for me. I live on the 8th floor of a tower block.’

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Angela Garry, trading as Pica Aurum. Angela Garry is an award-winning Personal Assistant and a fully qualified Teacher, who now runs a Training company working with PAs, EAs and Administrative Assistants worldwide. She has over 23 years' experience in ... (Read More)

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