Talent Acquisition

The Headhunter’s Guide to Cold Calls

So far, we’ve gone round the world in 80 stereotypes, and exposed the pranksters and prats who hold our careers in their hands. Whatever could be left?

The Cold Call!

Most of you reading this will have been on the receiving end of a cold call at some point in your life (and several of you will have made them yourselves), but how many of you know the lengths a headhunter will go to in order to reach you?  Naturally, your author being the dignified and honest professional that he is had to shop around for a few stories this time, but first a few tips on how to avoid embarrassing yourself when making a cold call.

1) Don’t say it’s personal

Boys and girls, I regret to confirm that the personal assistants (PAs) of this world have now cottoned on to this once unbeatable strategy – saying it’s a personal call. They do not believe you any more than those rich relatives you only speak to once a year when you’re short on cash do when you tell them you’re “just calling to say hello“. Only the most clueless of receptionists, gate-keepers, guardians of the Underworld (whatever we’re calling them these days) would accept that you know your target personally, especially since you’re having to go through a random switchboard to get hold of them. You might as well say you’re calling to inform them they’ve won the Nigerian lottery.

2) Don’t say you’re returning their call

The last time I overheard someone try this, it led to a bizarre back and forth with the PA they were trying to get past which succeeded only in making them look like they were following up on an imaginary conversation that never happened with someone they didn’t know. It went something like this:

HeadhunterCan I speak to Mr X please?
PAWho’s calling please?

HeadhunterMy name is XXX and I am returning his call
PAWhere are you calling from?

HeadhunterI just got a message to call him back and this is the only number that was given.
PAWhat is the call regarding please?

HeadhunterHow should I know? He’s the one who called me.

3) Don’t pretend to be fluent in a language you don’t speak

You’d think this one would be a no-brainer. Alas, fellow headhunters, there was a time when even your distinguished author believed that his A-level Spanish, which he hadn’t practiced for almost ten years, would sustain him in a sales call to a telecoms specialist in Madrid. It didn’t. Mainly because most of the language required for this conversation was technical terminology that I hadn’t even mastered in English yet.

Funnier still was the resolute belief of some of my neighbouring consultants that the key to overcoming the language barrier was speaking as loudly and slowly as possible. Add a bad phone line to the equation and you got the hilarious sight of them bellowing the same phrases down the phone for 30 minutes with all eyes on them as an office of 70 people was forced to wait for the call to end before resuming their own work. Fail!

The Success Stories

A cynical person might refer to these anecdotes as the spin stories, the trick stories, or even the outright lies stories, but the bottom line is: this is what got the job done for our (anti) heroes, so I’m going to call them the success stories. I asked several of my friends from the industry (who shall remain nameless) to send me the best lines they had ever used to acquire their target. Here are some of my favourites:

The Doctor:

I pretended to be a “Dr James Gray” who had significant and confidential health news for the Chief Tech Officer of a major telecommunications company. This actually fooled his secretary who apparently kept on asking him what health problems he had for months afterward.

This still isn’t as bad as another chap named Gary whose alter-ego was “Gupta Singh” who was a pushy and annoying Asian that would not take no for an answer. Direct quote: “It’s easier to be rude if you sound foreign”.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of ‘The Doctor’s’ contribution was when I challenged him on the ethics of his approach and that of his colleague, to which he responded:

Well it was 2005… and I take no responsibility for Gary!

The Wrestler:

This friend of mine and his team decided to make cold calling more interesting by challenging each other to name drop professional wrestlers in their conversations. The premise of the game, as he explained, was:

Who could name the most pro-wrestlers in one lead stripping exercise. For example: “Interesting you worked for Jimmy Jib IT Solutions Ltd. I work with Randall down there, Randall Savage – was he your manager down there?”

Killing Me Softly:

I vividly remember one Friday afternoon where my team and I decided to play a little game of or own: who could insert a song title into their cold call and make it sound completely natural? The winning song proved to be ‘Killing me Softly’ thanks to this conversation:

HeadhunterIs that Dave?
HeadhunterHi Dave. My name is XXX and I’m calling from XXX. I found your CV online today and think you’d be perfect for the job I’m working on – are you looking for work right now?
DaveNo, I’m not. Sorry.
HeadhunterOh no, Dave, mate, you’re killing me softly here. Are you sure?
Unfortunately, ‘Rasberry Beret’ proved to be less fruitful (no pun intended) and ended with the consultant hanging up on his customer half way through the call when he couldn’t bring himself to finish the job.
Where was I in all this? I was the one picking the song titles for other people to say. Hey, I was bored, not stupid.


The worst cold call trick I have ever heard used is someone posing as the flatmate of the person they want to reach, calling to tell them that their house is on fire and they could not get through to them on their mobile. Practice this one at your own peril boys and girls because God help you when you actually get through to that person and you have to explain who you really are.

Think outside the box – yes!
Pretend the box is on fire – no!

That’s it from me – until next time. Add your own stories below!

By Tony Koutsoumbos

Tony Koutsoumbos is a public speaker, campaigner, and entrepreneur who runs a communications consultancy named CLDS Debate Training Ltd. He previously worked for two years in IT and telecoms recruitment and kept a journal of his most interesting encounters and the lessons he learned from them.