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Career Advice

How to make a cold call

Four steps to selling yourself to a non-academic employer.


Many academics experience considerable frustration when they start to look for work outside academe. The environment in the government and private sector is foreign territory, into which you are plunged without a guide. So, how can you convince an employer that you can do the job that is advertised? In sales, this process is called prospecting, and it involves essentially four steps.

Research the prospect

You can succeed only if you can demonstrate your value to the prospect, which in this case is the hiring manager or HR person. Your value emerges if you solve a problem for them. You need to research what the company (or government unit) does and what its overall goals are. The process of doing this background research will help you understand how the advertised position contributes to those goals.

Target the prospect

The better you can determine what is valuable to the organization from the job ad, the more you will be able to target your written and oral communications with the hiring manager to demonstrate that you can provide this value.  Armed with that information, you are more able to tailor your cover letter and CV for the advertised position. With each line you write, you should ask yourself, “How does this provide value to the organization and the hiring manager, given their corporate history and their goals for the future?”

Make the phone call: “Don’t look at my degree, look at me!”

When you call a prospect, you have three minutes at most to get your message out, since hiring managers, like almost all of us, are exceptionally busy. So, it is best to write out what you plan to say ahead of time. Rehearse the speech multiple times so that you have it committed to heart. When you call, you want the tone to be conversational, not a robotic reciting of a script.

When your prospect answers, you have about 15 seconds to identify yourself, explain the reason for the call and ascertain whether the call can take place. Your prospective employer will either tell you that no time is a good time and not to bother calling back, in which case you move on to the next job application; or she will say that she is tied up right now, in which case you make an appointment to phone back; or, more or less enthusiastically, she will tell you to go ahead. Now you have about two minutes and thirty seconds left to demonstrate your value to the organization.

Remember that your prospective employer already has all of the information from your resumé, so don’t simply repeat your qualifications from there.  Also, refrain from referring extensively to your doctoral studies: the depressing truth that you must accept is that 90 percent of employers do not care what you studied in graduate school. You may even wish to say explicitly, “When you are evaluating my application, please don’t focus on my educational background. I have many very valuable skills that I acquired while pursuing my studies that would be a great asset to this position and your organization.”

If, for example, you used quantitative methods in your studies and the job calls for some adeptness at handling statistics or basic accounting, be sure to mention that you are no stranger to Excel. Almost every grad student has taught, presented and written ex-ten-sively, most often to very sophisticated audiences. These advanced presentation and communication skills are sorely needed in many positions.

Get the commitment

Try to finish the call knowing more or having more than you did before you started. In the case of a career prospecting call, you want to obtain an interview. If you are getting a positive response, try to book an interview right then and there.

Don’t be discouraged if you completely foul up the first few times you try this technique. Prospecting requires a degree of confidence and expertise, and these come only with experience. One good way of getting started is practising this technique with friends over the phone (doing it by phone is a must, since in person is much easier than over the phone, where you can’t read body language). Ask your friend to be difficult, refuse to speak with you, try to hang up, be evasive about offering a commitment.  After encountering these situations in a practice session, you will be better able to handle them when they emerge as you contact prospective employers.

John Lorenc completed his doctorate in legal and economic history at the University of Toronto and is now a national account manager at Sentry Technology Canada.

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  1. venice smith / November 14, 2014 at 11:00

    This is really interesting article to get information related to cold call. I am amaze to read it. I hope it might be very helping my staff for produce their communication activity.