It was 1994 and after a few years of trying to get a job with a brokerage firm, I landed a job at the mother of them all – Merrill Lynch.
I was 24 years old, fresh off my stint as an overly aggressive outside salesman and now I had a ‘real’ job as a Financial Advisor – the new name for stockbroker. I couldn’t wait to make money for the good people of Washington, DC.
Becoming a broker is first and foremost a sales job, you don’t need to know much about the markets, you just need to prospect. All day, every day. This was when they still handed you a phonebook and you ‘smiled-and-dialed’ your way to becoming a million dollar producer.
I slicked my hair back like Gordon Gekko, wore suspenders (you needed to call them braces) and bowties (the real ones you had to tie). Did I mention I was just 24? Becoming a product of Mother Merrill afforded you a certain arrogance – we were the best of the best, champions of Wall St., the largest retail force around, and our CEO’s came from the ranks of the brokerage unit, which meant that maybe one day I could be king!
My days consisted of getting in the office at 7am and leaving at 9pm. Cold calling all day long, in between 3 meals at McDonalds. I kept a call sheet and would make hundreds of dials a day in order to set appointments so I could convince the prospect I was the Financial Advisor they should be working with. I tried many different scripts that focused on dividend yielding stocks (income!) government bonds (tax fee income!) and municipal bonds (TRIPLE tax free income!!). These were still the days when brokers called prospects to pitch stocks and bonds. My best script was calling in reference to the info I mailed the prospect (I never mailed it, must have gotten lost in the mail…) to see what part of the financial markets they were interested in. That opened up alot of responses which allowed me to uncover opportunities to help.
One of the worst parts of smiling and dialing is when you would call a prospect and get their recent widow/widower on the phone. The horror of learning that their loved one died 2 weeks prior was overridden by the demanding voice of your branch manager in your head to gather assets and sell sell sell, so you tried to tactfully ask what kind of plan they had moving forward with the estate and insurance money. The next sound I usually heard was the phone slamming down. 2 dirty seconds later, I was dialing another prospect. The branch manager kept a chart of my account and asset growth. He didn’t expect empathy – he expected me to hit my training goals, and cold calling would get me there.
He told me to never leave voicemails.
My biggest client came from a voicemail.
Million dollar account. He was a Japanese man who worked for a local agency and he must have liked the message I left (I called about a gold stock that was hot at the time). After what seemed like millions of cold calls I finally landed a big client. He wound up opening accounts for his parents who lived in Tokyo. They did not speak English (so much for Rule 405 – know your customer). I gave the people in our back office fits trying to transfer stock from Japanese banks.
Aimless cold calling like this day in and day out, combined with my 3 daily visits to McDonalds and my nightly visits to the local watering hole to relieve them of their stock of bourbon (what 24 year old drinks Manhattans?) eventually led to burnout, 30 additional pounds and a wicked case of gout (again, what 24 year old gets gout?). I had one colleague who used to cold call until midnight – we were only allowed to call until 9p on the East Coast so this guy had a California phonebook he would use to prospect from 9p to midnight (he is a million dollar producer to this day – way to go Gene!).
I knew this was not what I had in mind when I thought I was getting a job on Wall St. I knew there was a better way, and years later when I went back to the retail brokerage side after years on the institutional side as a trader and then literally working on Wall St at the NYSE, I really learned to market myself a lot more effectively with strategic cold-calling and networking.
It was just another step in my learning that there was a better way to sell. Not stocks, but myself. And to tell the widow how sorry I was for their loss and kindly get off the phone.
So, have you ever cold called a dead man?
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