Executive Q&A: Oklahoma City entrepreneur capitalizes on fearsome deed … the cold call
By Paula Burkes
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Oklahoma City entrepreneur Catherine Brown has built a growing business on something many salespeople and business owners fear doing: cold calling prospective customers.
Her 14-year-old company — Initial Call — provides companies nationwide with cold callers to find sales for them, and also trains internal staffs to decipher and defray any hesitations that may be sabotaging their sales efforts.
“Many people think of sales as a four-letter word; others think ‘used car salesman,’” said Brown, who is sales executive in residence for i2E Inc., a private nonprofit corporation focused on growing technology-based companies in Oklahoma.
“But sales is about initiating relationships with other people, and people should be proud, not embarrassed or afraid, to offer products and services that others may need,” she said. “Anyone who ever has to convince anyone of anything is selling.”
From her home office near Lincoln Boulevard and NE 13, Brown, 44, sat down recently with The Oklahoman to talk about her life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your childhood and school days.
A: My dad was a nursing home administrator and mom, a nurse. I have one sibling, a younger sister, who now lives in Oklahoma City, too, after my husband and I set her up with her husband. Growing up, we lived in different towns across Texas, before settling in San Antonio when I was 8. I was a band nerd — a percussionist in the marching and concert bands. In high school, I also played with the citywide youth orchestra, for which you had to audition. The summer of 1989, we got to perform all over Europe, in Poland, what’s now Czechoslovakia, Prague and Vienna. We saw resistance posters everywhere, but we had no idea what was about to happen — that the Cold War would end that November. I was awarded a partial scholarship to Rice for music. When I started college, I thought I’d become a percussionist in a professional orchestra, but I changed directions after graduation.
Q: How’d you get into your unique line of work?
A: By accident. I married the summer after I graduated college and moved to Austin, where my husband attended UT grad school. I needed a job to help cover our basic living expenses. I’d been doing temporary data entry for the Austin newspaper, when I answered a newspaper ad from a local IT firm offering training to recruit programmers for them. I thought, “I can do that.” It sounded interesting and fun. When they called me about the job, we were halfway through the interview before I realized the phone call was the interview. The hirer wasn’t trying to set up a time to meet, but evaluating how I sold myself. After a few years with that firm, I joined a similar one that didn’t have a local office. I worked from home, which was very unusual in the mid ’90s. I talked that firm into letting me have a sales territory, with sales quotas, to find customers, which meant a significant career move and raise for me. In my mind, recruiting, which I already was doing, was selling. “I think I can do it. Let me do it,” I told them. In ’99, I worked from Amherst, Mass., for nine months for that same company, which had been bought and was expanding. Ryan taught a short time at Amherst College, before finding and accepting a tenure-track position with OU the summer of 2000.
Q: What led you to start your own business?
A: When Ryan got his first check — minus income taxes, which we didn’t have in Texas, and mandatory retirement savings — we realized I needed to continue working, which I love anyway. But my company had been bought again and my position would’ve required travel. By that time, I had five years experience in tele-recruiting and telemarketing, and was expecting our second son. I incorporated Initial Call the summer of 2002 so I could continue working from home and be available to my family. In the beginning, I did the calling myself — providing companies with a list of qualified, interested buyers. Today, I spend the majority of my time developing and vetting clients. We have some 20 contracted cold callers nationwide who do the prospecting for us, from their respective homes.
Q: What types of companies does Initial Call prospect for?
A: In the beginning it was all tech companies: software companies or programming services companies that do the coding to set up software. That’s where my referrals were. Today, it’s about 50 percent tech companies, but also employee benefits, public relations, advertising, other professional services and nonprofits. We serve companies nationwide. Our last two clients were a San Francisco-based medical software company and an educational products company out of New York City. Dale Rogers Training Center is among the companies we’ve sold for locally. We helped find companies that needed custodial services or custom-made frames and trophies offered and made by their intellectually-disabled clients. I loved their mission. We don’t have much competition regionally. It’s a big thing for a business owner to trust you to represent them accurately and professionally. And that you won’t sound like you’re on a bad line out of a call center somewhere.
Q: Do you ever turn away potential customers?
A: Yes. If we perceive a company doesn’t have an accurate sense of how they’re perceived, or if they don’t have something unique and compelling to offer the market. To be successful, our people need to feel passionate about what they’re presenting and know that there are people who need the product or service.
Q: When did you decide to add the sales training piece to your business?
A: A year ago, I learned of an online questionnaire developed by Dallas-based Behavioral Science Research Press, which measures peoples’ sales reluctance, or possible reasons for hesitation or procrastination in your initiation with others. Initially, I thought it might make a good tool to recruit my salespersons. And then I realized I could combine it, with my materials, to teach others how to sell. The assessment makes you aware of what might be costing you sales. Some people, for example, might give up after two follow-up calls because they don’t want to be perceived as too pushy — when the business owners most likely are simply busy. Or others, like me, might not ask their clients for referrals because they mistakenly think such a request will change the professional relationship they have built with them. Others are afraid of rejection or sounding dumb. Once people realize what’s keeping them from successful selling, they can retrain their thinking. And if I can remedy that anxiety for people, it’s so gratifying. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been conducting monthly “ExtraBold Sales” half-day workshops at the Better Business Bureau offices at 17 S Dewey. Training now represents 30 percent of Initial Call’s revenues.