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James Caan: “The knock-backs were soul destroying”

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“I reckon I made 40-50 calls a day that first week asking to speak to the sales director, the head of HR, the managing director, or whoever was in charge of hiring. I have never found cold-calling particularly comfortable, and it didn’t help that the person I needed to speak to often wasn’t there, and my calls never got returned. It was understandable: no one had ever heard of me, the company didn’t have a brand or a track record to trade on.

“Nevertheless, it was fairly soul destroying, and after a couple of hours of knock-backs I just had to get out of that broom cupboard. Working in a room without a window made it much tougher.

“I got bored with the sound of my own voice and whatever I was saying to them wasn’t getting the right response. Still, I recognised that it would have been worse if I had been sitting there saying, ‘Hi, I’m James Caan from James Caan Associates’ and having the phone put down on me. Having the boss doing the cold-calling would have told the world that I was just a one-man operation, and took some comfort from the fact that I hadn’t named the company after myself.

“However, after a week of having the phone put down on me I was finding it tough. Why wasn’t I getting the results? I had spoken to hundreds of people, all of whom had basically told me to get lost. To them I was just another cold-caller wasting their time. So I asked myself, ‘When I was at Reid Trevena, what made me say yes when they cold-called me?’ And that was the point at which something clicked. Putting myself in the position of people taking my call was what turned things around.

“I realised that if an agency had called me at Reid Trevena and said ‘We’re currently working for a number of clients in the financial services sector and I met somebody yesterday who’s got five years’ outstanding experience in the financial services who I think would be perfect for you,’ I would obviously have listened really hard. If that candidate had also had an existing client base and was one of the top ten sales people in his company, then I’d absolutely have made an appointment to see him because he could have brought us a whole block of business.

“I realised that I had just been giving people a generic pitch and it was too easy for people to say no to me. Now I’d worked out that I had to ring potential clients with something concrete to offer them.

“Excited again, I went back to the office and started to write out my perfect candidate. What would Mr Perfect have? I modelled him on one of the best people at Reid Trevena, a guy who earned a fortune and bagged one referral after another. I decided my candidate was twenty-nine, was an Oxford graduate, had been an investment banker before, and had billed £250,000 the previous year. All he need now was a name. I called him Craig.

“So now when I called people up I tried to engage them in a conversation about Craig. ‘I had this guy in last week, he’s at Allied Dunbar and although he’s not actively looking to move at the moment I know he’d be perfect for you …’ I gave them the pitch and at the end of it they’d say: ‘Fantastic, we’d love to see him.’

“There was a big grin on my face because I hadn’t even asked them if they had a vacancy, I’d just got them talking. The fact that Craig didn’t exist didn’t bother me, because I had also worked out another strategy to find him. ‘Hypothetically’, I’d say, ‘if we were in a position to get Craig to come along and see you, it would be really helpful if you could give me the reasons why somebody like Craig would leave Allied Dunbar to come and work for you.’ Effectively what was happening was that I was getting the sales director to write me the job description.

“At the end of the call, I’d say: ‘Leave it with me. I’ll speak to Craig and I’ll give you a call towards the end of the week.’

“So now I had my first requirement from a potential client, and, of course, the first thing I did was call up Allied Dunbar.”

Win! Win! Win!Want to win a one-on-one exclusive business lunch with James Caan or a free copy of his new book The Real Deal, a gripping autobiography which reveals his journey from Brick Lane to Dragons’ Den? Enter The Caan Chrimbo Competition here.

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