A Surprising Cold Email Best Practice

By the time a “best practice” is best, it’s mainstream … common. A cold email best practice is most often a “worst practice” in the realm of sales outreach. Starting conversations with decision-makers using LinkedIn InMail, or standard email, requires breaking away from the usual cold email best practices.

By the time a “best practice” is best, it’s mainstream … common. A cold email best practice is most often a “worst practice” in the realm of sales outreach. Starting conversations with decision-makers using LinkedIn InMail, or standard email, requires breaking away from the usual cold email best practices.

Sending cold email messages, and follow-ups, using sequences or campaigns is working less-and-less. Mostly because of a widely-accepted best practice: Adding value to cold email messages.

What?! I thought everyone knows — earning response means adding value to email messages when prospecting.

Today, I’ll challenge this cold email best practice. I’m basing the challenge less on opinion, more on experience.

Offering value — without having earned the chance to provide it — is failing most sellers. Beware.

The Case for Adding Value

“Here’s the problem with emails today, they lack value,” says Jim Keenan of A Sales Guy Inc.

“If you don’t think an email needs to offer value, then you are most likely one of the perpetrators of horrific emails. Emails have to offer value,” he says.

However, our clients, our sales team and I myself are living proof: Cold emails not offering value do earn response.

Likewise when prospecting, most sales reps believe email messages need to be seen as credible by prospects. Not always true either. Trying to add value, and be seen as credible, can sabotage success.

That said, Keenan makes a compelling argument for what many believe is the No. 1, golden cold email best practice.

Your email, he says, must offer value, “Because you’re asking for something.” A meeting.

“I’m regularly bombarded with horrific emails, almost always asking for 15 or 30 minutes of my time, these emails offer nothing of value to me and just end up cluttering my inbox. I delete them as fast as I can,” says Keenan.

“Why should someone open your email or give you 15 minutes of their time if there is no value in it for them? They shouldn’t and they won’t.”

But what if your cold email didn’t strive to prove value — at all? What if you also skipped asking for a meeting in cold sales outreach?

Increasingly, clients are opening emails based on curiosity about what’s inside the email — not anticipation of value they’ll receive. Likewise, compelling a customer to take your meeting without having established a need to is an outdated cold email best practice.

An Unusual, But Effective Best Practice

Want a meeting with your decision-maker? Stop requesting them. Instead, start provoking discussions, piquing curiosity.

Stop trying to give-give-give, add value and clearly present offers. Start trying to quickly provoke. Be un-clear.

“The offer is what you are offering or giving the reader. Yes! I said giving. If you’re not offering the reader anything, why should they open it, read it, respond or even agree to what you’re asking for?” asks Keenan.

Because they’re curious. They’ve been provoked. Not because you offered clear, compelling value. This is sales, not marketing.

My colleagues and students are earning more meetings by not asking for them; instead, provoking curiosity about an issue, idea or claim which may lead to (justify) customers’ desire to meet.

Yet Keenan makes the argument we hear so often.

“To get your buyers and prospects to open your emails you need to craft an email that compels the buyer to open it, (your first ask), read it, (your second ask), then respond (your third ask) and then agree to your request for a meeting or demo or whatever you’re ultimately asking for (your fourth ask).”

In a marketing context, yes. Sales is different.

When sales people try to earn meetings by providing value, and proving themselves credible, they often fail. My opinion? Sure. But this is also my experience.

Why Adding Value Fails

In a cold email context customers aren’t asking for your value. They’re not sitting around waiting for value to arrive from a stranger. You can offer value on the first touch… and then again, and again in a follow-up sequence.

But you’re just pushing value at people — hoping they’ll find your words valuable enough to respond. Clients aren’t triggered by sellers pushing “just enough” unsolicited value at them.

Consider also: That valuable tidbit in your email message is often information clients often already know. (don’t value!)

Instead, help prospects ask you for a discussion by piquing their interest in one. Not by offering value; rather, by being vague and not asking for a meeting. (like everyone else does)

“What’s the point of sending a cold email if you’re not going to ask for anything,” argues Keenan. “The key is to make sure the ask is clear; 15-minutes of time and introduction to the CEO agreeing to 30-minute demo, etc. These are clear asks. Asking to discuss their challenges, or asking if the prospect would be open to a call are not clear asks.”

Increasingly, our students do better by not asking for the meeting in a cold email; instead, attempting to pique interest in a discussion. (which may lead to a meeting)

This helps your message stand out from the pack. It’s unusual in how it breaks the typical cold email best practice (pushing value) pattern.

Eliminate Asks

Adding value doesn’t work anymore … logically and in our collective experiences. Instead, what if you could earn better response to cold email messages by not asking for a meeting?

What if your message contained no “asks.” What if your email’s goal was purely to provoke curiosity — rather than earn a meeting?

Make your cold email “smartphone short.” Do homework on the prospect. Research them. Make it obvious this is not another templated piece of spam. Avoid persuading. Avoid posturing for credibility. Care a little less.

Increasingly, clients are opening emails based on curiosity about what’s inside the email — not anticipation of value they’ll receive. Likewise, prospects are replying to cold messages based on curiosity, not value received in the message, nor anticipating value in a meeting.

What is your experience?

Ditch the Call to Action in Your Cold Email Strategy

Think about the last time a salesperson piqued your interest with a cold email, then stopped. They didn’t try to coerce or steer you. Instead, they were silent … acknowledging your right to choose to engage or walk away.

Think about the last time a salesperson piqued your interest with a cold email, then stopped. They didn’t try to coerce or steer you. Instead, they were silent … acknowledging your right to choose to engage or walk away.

We often walk away. But think about a time you chose to continue. Because you were curious, you asked for more details … to fully grasp what sounded intriguing.

Why did you make that choice? Probably because you were offered the chance to choose.

Now think about the last time a seller piqued your interest but told you what to do next.

That’s what a call to action is. It’s a directive, a guide. It’s a tool marketers use to tell the customer what to do next.

Ask yourself, as a sales person: What does giving directive do for you — in a cold email outreach context?

It directs the prospective buyer. It tells them what you want them to do next.

This is exactly why, in many cases, avoiding a call to action is the best way to provoke a conversation with decision-makers.

Psychologists and neuro-linguistic programming geeks have long studied the power of acknowledging the other side’s right to choose. You should too.

PDFs and Web Links Don’t Work

The use of PDFs and web links are usually applied in a persuasive context. Bad idea for cold sales email messages.

“I’ve attached a brief presentation explaining our value.” Or, “Please consider enrolling in this free demo of our tool …” are calls to action. And in most cases, they’re calling for action in ways working against the sales rep.

Your PDF should not out-sell you. The goal of your cold email should be to spark a conversation, not get your PDF reviewed, nor earn a demo or trial.

That’s a marketing outcome.

Generally, introduction of marketing constructs into cold sales email messages is proving disastrous. Mostly because decision-makers are, in comparison, open to having their curiosity piqued about a problem to be solved, or issue they’re grappling with.

They’ve had enough marketing shoved at them — from marketers and, lately, sales people who push marketing messages and calls to action.

Give Them a Choice

Letting the other side choose to engage or not allows both sides to mutually qualify if a discussion is worthwhile.

“The problem is choice.” It’s one of my favorite movie script lines. Indeed, in The Matrix, choice is the problem for Neo, the pesky Anomaly in The Architect’s tyrannical system. Yet for sales reps the removal of choice is the problem!

Think about it. Removing choice is the ultimate marketing outcome. The way it’s executed is persuasion. A call to action fit right in with that kind of bold, brash technique.

Grab attention — then direct it. Hurry, before the customer figures out a way to wriggle off the hook.

But calls to action rarely fit the cold sales email context. You cannot tell a customer to engage or meet. You must help them want to meet — if there is justification to meet.

I’m often told, “Jeff I need a better email message — to grab attention, gain credibility and convince a prospect to talk with me.”

Wrong. That model eliminates choice. It attempts to persuade and then coerce a decision. Result: A few meetings happen but with reluctant prospects.

Also, consider your decision-maker is bombarded with meeting requests — all asking to give sellers the chance to persuade them!

Instead, let the other side choose to engage or not. This allows both sides to mutually qualify if a discussion is worthwhile.

Acknowledge your prospects’ right to choose. This begins the process of helping customers to convince themselves to speak … if, in fact, the decision to engage is what they need.

Quick Example

Below is an actual example of how I helped Ben, a sales rep for a retail data analysis company targeting branded manufacturers of textiles and shoes. His original cold email call to action was not working … it was typical:

Do you have 15 mins to hop on a call so we can see what your needs are and how we can help?

We quickly created a curiosity-sparking way to structure the middle and end of an effective cold email — without a call to action. It’s working!

I have an idea for you. Not sure if it’s a fit. Ralph Lauren is using an unusual tactic to ensure price alignment, drive demand and increase revenue ~31%. Are you open to hearing how they are doing it?

Best regards,
Ben

No marketing-esque call to action. Pure provocation, focusing on the amazing story Ralph Lauren (Ben’s client) is creating for itself.

This technique is resulting in far more discussions for Ben. All without a call to action.

1 More Reason to Avoid a Call to Action

Context. Cold email arrives without any context. Your prospect has no expectation of the email. Unlike a marketing email, where the reader has opted in, the reader is not expecting nor giving permission to be told what to do.

A call to action is out of context — because there is no context in a cold email.

Your cold email is fresh, new, unexpected; however, it’s also assumed to be delete-worthy (by default).

Think about your own inbox. If a sales person’s subject line “pushes a pain” you are presumed to have — delete key. If it requests a meeting — delete key. Offers a free demo — delete key.

These are the easy-to-spot, unsolicited come-ons plaguing inboxes of decision-makers. The more we all experience these patterns, the easier it is to delete without opening.

Remember: Most sales outreach is pushing self-centered marketing copy and ending with a cheesy call to action. This creates lack of distinction for sellers who use this approach.

You blend in.

Beware: “Is this of interest?” or “Would you like to learn more?” are soft calls to action that often fail too!

Bottom line: Calls to action are bossy. They either tell or suggest what the recipient should do. They eliminate choice and that’s the problem.

Eliminating customers’ choices works in marketing (sometimes) but never in sales.

Earning more conversations, faster, demands you avoid best practices. Literally. Instead, choose emerging “next practices” to create a modern, effective sales outreach strategy.

What has your experience been?