A Brief History of Cold Calling

If you’re reading this, you might be procrastinating instead of going through the list of calls you’re supposed to make today. And unless you’re really new to sales, you’ve probably made thousands of cold calls in your career. But how did we get here? We dug through the archives of the internet to find out how cold calling became a daily part of life for salespeople (and customers) across the world. 

The concept of cold calling dates back to 1873, with the man who invented modern selling as we know it, John H. Patterson, of the National Cash Register Company (NCR). Patterson’s first “cold calls” weren't actually phone calls, but face-to-face client conversations, usually at their place of business, with the goal of earning the stranger’s trust before offering suggestions for which cash register would best fit his customer’s business needs. Patterson documented his technique in what would become some of the first sales training manuals to give his employees a playbook to sell to strangers. 

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell gave salespeople the gift of the telephone. But the telephone wasn’t rapidly adopted like new technologies are today. It wasn’t until 1946 that the majority of U.S. households had phones. However, businesses were quicker to adopt. In 1886, the Yellow Pages launched as the first business telephone directory, which allowed salespeople to call businesses directly in what would become the first true cold calls. 

The Golden Age of Cold Calling 

By the late 1950s, 75% of U.S. households had telephones, which began the golden age of cold calling. During this time, telemarketing became a significant part of sales strategies across industries. Companies invested heavily in training programs and call centers, focusing on scripting, objection handling, and closing techniques. The expansion of consumer credit and the booming economy created fertile ground for cold calling to thrive for decades. By the 1980s, cold calling surpassed postal mail as the most popular way for salespeople to reach prospects.

Regulation and Consumer Protection

As cold calling grew, so did concerns about its impact on consumers. In the late 20th century, regulatory measures were introduced to protect consumers from aggressive and intrusive sales practices. The United States implemented the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) in 1991, which restricted telemarketing calls and introduced the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003. These regulations aimed to balance the needs of businesses with the rights of consumers, leading to more ethical cold calling practices. The regulations included that cold calling could only be done between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Salespeople were also required to disclose if they were calling for a for-profit or charity organization, and they were required to reveal all the information about the product they were selling, which meant that they were legally obligated not to lie. 

The Present and Future of Cold Calling

Today, cold email (and LinkedIn direct messaging) has emerged as the primary way to reach prospects. Much the same way cold calling largely replaced face-to-face prospecting for its ability to allow reps to pitch more customers per day, cold email lets reps reach out to thousands of people via bulk sends and automated sequences. 

While some argue that cold calling is becoming obsolete, it still remains one of the best ways for a salesperson to provide a personal touch and get immediate feedback that only a phone (or video) call can provide.

Cold calling continues to evolve. Modern sales strategies often integrate cold calling with digital tools and analytics, enabling more targeted and personalized calls. Sales reps are now listening back to call recording and gathering insights around their performance to sell better. Although it’s harder than ever to build trust with a stranger on the phone, cold calling is still a widely used sales tactic. As new technologies emerge, picking up the phone and giving your prospect a call might become the best way to stand out in a sea of unread emails. So what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone and make that call (after lunch). 

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