Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The call-back

I'd like to think I returned every call I received in my career.

But I know that would be a lie.

As former COO of Bankrate I definitely took my fair share of unsolicited calls / e-mails from people of all stripes – customers, potential vendors, salespeople, credit card companies, long distance resellers, etc.

I think you can break them into a few camps:
Customers (as a publisher, this includes both advertisers and consumers): must take. Not always fun, but you gotta do it. To be honest, the consumer calls were always interesting. Mortgage brokers are pretty opinionated as a group, and more than once I wish I could talk faster so I could get the hell outta there, but I’d say 95% of the time I learned something very useful (One percent of all random callers to a public company are mad (insanely mad) at the world and it is the receivers turn to take it). Talking to your customers – there’s a revolutionary idea!

Vendors you know or have heard of or that were referred to you: again, a must take. The risk of passing on the next great partnership/product/whatever is too high. Everyone fears the call from the boss: “Have you seen the new module by vendor X on competitors Ys site? It’s awesome!” You: “Yes, X called me a few months ago, never called ‘em back. I suspect that was why they were calling…..”

Vendors you don’t know, don’t need or have never heard of: these are a mixed bag. If it was something we didn’t need or didn’t use and it was painfully obvious they had spent zero time on our web site, I didn’t call them back. (I got many, many calls trying to sell me banking-type products – Bankrate isn’t a bank, 3 minutes on the site would show this, I felt it was just lazy). If the offer/idea/product seemed interesting, I’d try to call ‘em back, or refer them to a more appropriate colleague. Unfortunately, all too often I just got tied up and didn’t call back.

Now, I’m on the other side of this equation. I am the little guy, the startup CEO trying to get people to take his call / e-mail. It is hard. I suspect somewhere, in some telemarketing convention, someone is (many are?) smiling at the thought of my pain.

There is an old joke that if you want to know if someone is your friend, ask ‘em for a loan. I’m not asking for a loan, but you definitely see who your friends are when you start a business. It’s been amazing. Certainly there are exceptions, but people who I knew and thought were my friends and I believed would be eager to do business with us haven’t / won’t return my calls/e-mails, where as guys who I never had met and didn’t know from Adam have gone out of their way to be gracious. I can never repay the kindness of some of these strangers who have helped us so much. I don’t want to overplay this – many, many friends have been terrific and will always be terrific, and have been a boon to our business, and we wouldn’t be here without them. But…

Another interesting phenomenon – a cold e-mail is never returned on the first attempt at contact. I’m just starting to keep count, but I would say my experience is you have to usually send 3-4 emails to get a response. This is even true when contacting salespeople selling something you want to buy. If they sense you are a small fry, then you can hang, buddy. (It’s especially true when you are trying to sell someone something, but that’s for another post…). It is now to the point that I write my follow-up email (“hey – just checking in, wanted to see if you had a chance to review….”) at the same time as my original email and queue it in my calendar for delivery a few days later, ‘cause I will definitely have to send it, and it is easier to write this stuff when you are on a roll. Lesson here? Persistence is mandatory! Even when you are buying! (Again, maybe not a big shock, but interesting to me)

Final point. Now that I am on the receiving end, you would think I had reformed my own ways, right? Ran to return every call, every e-mail? No! I’m still only so-so at that. But now, I know what it feels like, and it makes me want to be better. We will see.

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