Cold outreach: Lessons Learned on the New York City Subway

I was on my way to lunch, sitting on New York City’s midtown 6 train. An oddly-dressed woman with a funny hat and a large backpack motioned for me to take my headphones off. Oh great, another one from the loony bin– pretend you don’t see her.
She gave me a face that said, “you’re a real jerk if you keep ignoring me,” so I removed one of my earbuds making sure to not look too interested.

“What is your ethnic background?”

I replied that I was a mutt.

“I’ve been guessing people’s ethnic backgrounds for seven years. I need to know more specifics.”

“Swedish, Danish, Norwegian.”

Now I’m only half sure this was a ploy to start a conversation, but it worked. Gradually I recognized that sitting across from me was another human being, although maybe dressed a little differently from me and much more of a free spirit. But we talked about the TEDx event I was attending later on, and that she (I found out her name was Julie) was interested in the psychology of deforestation.

I only talked with her for a few stops before I had to get off the train, and there was no mention of even exchanging contact information, but it left an impression on me for a few reasons.

First, as a New Yorker I am approached by dozens of people each day, and for better or for worse I have been conditioned to blindly ignore all of them. But somehow a stranger had managed to engage in friendly conversation and make the crowds of New York a little more human.

This situation almost exactly mirrored what marketers and sales people face in terms of cold outreach. They get shot down through blind rejection before they even get a chance.

The keys here are persistence, ambiguity, and a genuine interest in the other party.

The only thing Julie didn’t do was make any sort of ask. She didn’t ask me on a date (sorry, I’m taken), she didn’t try to sell me anything or ask for any connections. And maybe she was just genuinely curious and looking to make New York a more friendly place. She was from California, after all ; ).

The key to remember when you get rejected by a customer is that it’s not really the customer’s fault. Hey, if I stopped to talk to every single person that wanted a dollar or wanted to hand me a flyer or wanted me to see a comedy show I would never get anything done and I’d be broke. Not to mention I’d probably be putting myself in harm’s way on many occasions.

The same is true for your customers. They can’t buy everything that comes their way, so they make snap judgements as to whether or not it’s even worth listening.

Like Julie showed us, it’s up to you to be different, to get their attention and to send them on the rest of their journey better off, even if the relationship doesn’t go beyond a cold call.

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