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When Did Sales "Cold Calling" Begin?

· sales history,cold calling,prospecting

Note: I have titled this article for a specific purpose. As of today...right now...if you were to Google, “when did sales cold calling begin?”, an article comes up which is wildly incorrect. I tried to add a comment, but that comment was apparently rejected. I’m hoping to achieve at least a close second in the search from now on, so anyone doing the research at least gets the correct information.  😁

When did cold calling in sales begin? To start, let's define it. 

"Cold Calling" is defined as making “an unsolicited call on (someone), by phone or in person, in an attempt to sell goods or services”. 

"by phone or in person" - so let's dig in to both. 

In person: Cold calling began around the beginning of time. 

Think about it. The first humans who walked the earth derived their sustenance from the land - eating what they could eat. It didn’t take long for those humans to cultivate the earth to make it produce more abundantly. To grow things. To build things. 

Then, guess what likely happened? Tribes began to discover other tribes. 

“Hey, look what they’ve got! Let’s kill them for it!” 

The strong tribes conquered the weaker tribes, and the weaker tribes learned from every encounter. Those weaker tribes quickly realized they could make exchanges - instead of engaging in war every time. 

Values began to be established for things - what value a produced item had, and what it could be traded for. 

Sales as a function began. In-person cold calling began. If you in your tribe produced an item that had value, you’d produce more of it, and go tribe-to-tribe trying to "sell it” for something in return. 

in other words, "cold calling" salespeople from other tribes sold your tribe stuff so you didn’t have to produce everything yourself. 

Cold calling - calling on someone to sell things. In person. Millions of years ago.

Telephone - more recently than you think!

Let’s start by talking about when the telephone was invented...and why.

In 1849, an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci invented the first basic telephone. It used something called electromagnetic voice transmission, along wires, that he used to communicate within his home. He, in his home laboratory, was able to speak to his ill wife on the 2nd floor. He devised a few other models, but never had the means to do anything with it.

It wasn’t until 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell won the first patent for the telephone. His approach was different than Meucci’s (called a “harmony” approach) and accidentally discovered it while trying to improve the telegraph. He had the means through financial backers and a business plan. 

The first telephone line was constructed soon after into 1878 (from Boston to Somerville, Massachusetts). It slowly expanded from there, as by the end of 1880, there were around 48,000 telephones in use in America. It stayed very local until 1892, when a line was finalized between Chicago and New York. Oddly enough, New York wasn’t connected to Boston until 1894.

It wasn’t until 1915 when the first transcontinental service was completed, via overhead wires. 

For many years, if you wanted to make a phone call, you would have to go to the local general store or some other central location. Each town had maybe one telephone. Homes weren’t wired together. And, even when they were, they initially were “party lines”, meaning a bunch of homes were wired together. If you wanted to call someone's home, the phone would ring all of them connected together. Once connected to the individual you wanted to speak with, the others hung up - or maybe not. You could listen in to a neighbor's call just by staying on, or even picking up the receiver randomly during the day. 

Rich, influential people had their own phones. Big businesses had phones connecting offices together. While the first telephone list was created in 1878 (1 page, 50 names, no phone numbers on it...if you wanted to call someone, you picked up the receiver and asked the person on the other end to connect you), the first true telephone lists weren't created until 1903. If you were one of the people who had a telephone, you were of considerable, there were companies collecting those names and publishing a list - like the “Multi-Mailing Company” in New York. These were valuable lists - given these were the influential people. However, they weren't used for cold calling. 

Regarding business use, I did massive searches to see anything regarding telephone use. Although Reuben H. Donnelly created a business directory in 1886, not a single book in my library before the 1950’s mentions telephone prospecting. Not one of them! Not one magazine from the era does, either. Cold calling via the telephone was not only not a method of outreach, it was frowned upon. 

Here's two big reasons why...

First, the issue of privacy:

In an issue of Salesmanship Magazine, July 1904, 

“Caution, of course, must be exercised when talking over the ‘phone, especially where there are several parties on the same line. Nothing of a confidential character should be telephoned. The writer heard of a bad telephone break the other day when a salesman called up by a telephone a young clerk who was planning quietly going into business for himself and did not want his employer to know until all arrangements had been made. The salesman blundered and kept on blundering until the whole project was no longer a secret. By night the entire village knew the news; the salesman lost a sale, made enemies.”

And remember, everything was done via switchboard. You would call an operator, and ask them to connect you. They  would literally connect the wires. Switchboard operators who connected the calls would also regularly invade people’s privacy. It was also pretty easy for eavesdroppers to hear you conduct your personal business as you used a public phone.

But also the issue of relationship:

In that same issue,

“It is not advisable to substitute a telephone call for the first visit, nor will it be profitable for the second or third. Acquaintance is desired before the telephone can be employed effectively.”

In the early 1900's, many wondered why you would try to call someone, when you could just send them a telegraph message instead? Telephone calls were used for short message delivery anyway. To get someone "live" on the phone to deliver a voice-to-voice message when a telegraph message (i.e., like a text message today) would do the same with less effort.

I kept digging - and while I found other instances of how the telephone was being used in sales up in the early 1900’s,  it was NEVER regarding prospecting, and only for short messages, confirmations and maybe a re-order.

Crazy, right? Canvassing, which is what we call prospecting today, was done entirely door-to-door. 

And, when you really think about it, it makes sense! 

Calls were expensive. Thinking about the connect and convert rate today, imagine how stupid cold-calling over a telephone would have been back then. You couldn’t call longer distance, so your calls would have to be local - where face-to-face was MUCH more effective and affordable. 

Your reputation really mattered in your local territory, too. 

And, given that telephones were rare, many didn’t even know how to use them. 

In a November, 1905 article in Salesmanship Magazine, there was an article that discussed how to talk on the phone: 

“You will sometimes talk to your prospect over the telephone, or you will have occasion to use the ‘phone in his presence to call up another “party.” There are many men who don’t know how to use the instrument properly. A man who is bungling at the telephone makes trouble for himself and other people. Don’t be in that class.

 Learn to use the ‘phone well, and this is the way: Put your lips within an inch of the transmitter, and having got your “party,” speak to him in an ordinary conversational way but in a voice much lower than its usual pitch-almost a whisper, in fact. Resist the temptation to whoop as if he were somewhere at the further end of the building-he is virtually as close to you as if your mustache brushed his ear. Try to speak distinctly, but not with exaggerated enunciation. Don’t clip your words short.”

So, what’s the answer? When did telephone cold calling actually begin? 

Well, we can guess that there were individuals trying it. During the Great Depression, salespeople would try anything. They would go door-to-door with members of their family at their side, and their pitch would include, “If you don’t buy this, Billy here doesn’t eat.”

However, the first documented environment where outbound telephone cold calling can be found isn’t until the 1950’s! 

1957, specifically, where “telemarketing” was the strategy of a company that is still in existence today, DialAmerica. They had an environment similar to what we see in many companies today - with a bank of phones and personnel responsible for handing inbound calls, and another bank doing outbound calling.

I started finding articles on calling starting in the 1960s, and many of the cold calling techniques we find today were developed in the 1980’s.

The answers: When did sales cold calling begin?

  • In-person door-to-door (ok, tribe-to-tribe) was quite literally the beginning of time.
  • The telephone? Officially it appears to be in the 1950s. 

I'll leave you with two final points. 

First, regarding the article I mentioned at the beginning. 

The first sentence reads, 

"Cold-calling, as we practice it today, was first documented in 1873 by John Patterson, who was the founder of the NCR Corporation.”

  • John Patterson didn’t even found NCR until 1884.
  • The manual he's talking about was written sometime after 1884, and not by John Patterson - it was actually written by his brother-in-law.
  • In none of Patterson's teachings did he ever advocate for the use of the telephone for cold outreach. 
  • And, given that there wasn’t even a telephone line in place before 1876, who were you going to call? How? 

So, we can pretty much put that argument to bed...

Second, a quote about the telephone from Marshall Field (Marshall Field & Co.) himself:

“Perhaps more than aught else the telephone quickens the pace of progress. As a factor in social and commercial life its importance can hardly be overestimated. Undeveloped possibilities await public appreciation. 

It concentrates thought, brings out the essential points, and makes a complex problem a simple one. It penetrates the panoply of rank and gains the ear of seclusion. While many await an interview, its message receives consideration. It changes plans, gives sanctions, secures counsels and grasps opportunities. It places the commercial forces of a metropolis at your call. 

Field's quote above was also in July of 1904's edition of Salesmanship Magazine.

Do you agree? Did cold-calling really start with the beginning of human life? Did telephone cold calling really not start in earnest until the 1950's? My research says "yes", but I'm always looking for more clarification, more sources and more insight into our profession's past.

The header image: The telephone tower in Stockholm about 1890, with wires covered in hoar frost. Remember, every phone had to be connected to switchboards and run through a central station back then.

 It didn't last long, as bigger cities started to bury phone lines - but this one was a monster, and Sweden was ahead of other countries in their roll out of the telephone. Source: Tekniska museet

As always, if you're losing a lot to the status quo, it might not be your prospect - it may be you...your messaging, positioning and overall buying journey. Simple tweaks using the nerdery of transparency & expectation setting could be the answer. That extends down to negotiation, where transparent negotiation increases deal values dramatically, builds trust (versus eroding it) and makes your forecast more accurate. Reach out for info on keynotes for your revenue organization, virtual & in-person workshops, or just to say hello. 

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