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A Brief History of Cold Calling

Written by:

Sean McAlindin, a business and arts writer, has a decade-long experience in music and culture journalism and recently ventured into business writing.

Edited by:

Sallie, holding a Ph.D. from Walden University, is an experienced writing coach and editor with a background in marketing. She has served roles in corporate communications and taught at institutions like the University of Florida.

A Brief History of Cold Calling

A Brief History of Cold Calling

Do you pick up the phone or open your laptop every morning to contact customers you’ve never met? If so, you may be one of nearly 100,000 telemarketers in the United States. But have you ever wondered where your profession began? 

In this brief history lesson, we’ll tell you how cold calling came about and how we got to where we are today. This information will help to add a new perspective to your work while giving you a renewed appreciation for the misunderstood art of cold calling.

Key Takeaways

  • Over 150 years old, cold calling is still one of the most common ways to attract potential customers.

  • Cold calling has changed over time, but the goal is still the same: to make a connection with a potential customer.

What is Cold Calling?

Cold calling is a form of sales that takes place between a salesperson and a customer they’ve never met.

It generally refers to phone-based conversations, but technically covers in-person, door-to-door, email, and social media interactions, too. 

As one of the oldest and most common forms of active salesmanship, cold calling allows salespeople to interact with prospects who may or may not know their brand. The key factor is that this is the first time these two people have interacted with each other, and the conversation is neither scheduled nor expected. 

A Brief History of Cold Calling

On some level, salespeople through the ages have always used cold calling. I can just imagine an ancient trader wandering the Silk Road pitching his wares to unsuspecting passersby. But without direct records, it’s hard to say exactly how this worked. 

Modern history traces cold calling to the 18th century. The Philadelphia Contributorship was an insurance company co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. Using door-to-door pitches and community selling, these founding insurers were the first to provide fire insurance to American businesses before there even was a United States of America. 

Evolution of Cold Calling Techniques and Technologies

Over a century later in 1873, National Cash Register founder John Patterson drafted a patterned sales script and sent his sales representatives knocking on doors throughout assigned territory. The modern telephone was invented three years later, in 1876, by Alexander Graham Bell, and the rest is history.

The concept of the lead list existed as early as 1903 when New York-based Multi-Mailing Co. researched phone books in 13 states and found 600,000 viable prospects. There were over 3 million telephones connected in the U.S.

At that time, the newly developed system gave callers access to more financially prosperous members of the community. Because they were able to afford this new technology, these people were considered quality prospects, regardless of their need or interest in buying the product or service.  

After a steady rise, telemarketing really took off in the mid-20th century as companies brought private switchboards in-house. The first inside sales team in the United States dialed its first prospects in 1957 as employees of the Life Circulation Company, which would later become DialAmerica after the acquisition of Time Magazine’s phone subscription unit.

By the 80s, telemarketing had surpassed postal mailing as the most popular way for sales professionals to reach out to new customers. For decades, many salespeople earned their keep, day in and day out, by dialing up hundreds of leads.

Regulations and Technological Shifts Impacting Cold Calling

In 1991, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was passed by the US Congress which established some rules that telemarketers had to follow. For example, they were not supposed to call potential customers before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. or use artificial or prerecorded messages. These rules made cold calling more difficult, as it meant fewer calls were answered. 

From the cold-calling heyday of the 20th century, flash forward to 2003 when the introduction of a national Do Not Call registry erected barriers for consumers with landlines. While business lines were still fair game, there were now nearly 250 million private citizens on the list, limiting salespeople’s options for cold calls. 

Technological progress came to the forefront once again in the telecommunications industry with advancements to mobile phones that changed everything, once again. Although some versions of cell phones had been around since 1973, it wasn’t until 2007 that the first iPhone came out. The advent of enhanced mobile technology revolutionized communication with texting, handheld email, and social media taking off in every direction. 

Caller ID became mainstream which has made it much more difficult for a cold caller to break through to potential customers. Nowadays, it’s much easier for people to refuse a call or block any numbers they don’t know. In addition, over the years the Federal Communications Commision (FCC)  has continued to introduce stricter regulations around robocalling and calling without a customer’s consent. 

As a result, many people see cold calling as a dying art. But the drop in telemarketing activity has been replaced by email marketing and, more recently, social media marketing. At the end of the day, we’re always going to find ways to connect with new people who might be interested in our product.

The future of cold calling is likely to continue evolving with technological advancements and changing consumer behavior. It may involve more automation, AI-powered insights, and a greater emphasis on building genuine relationships with potential clients and/or customers.

To learn more about his topic, check out some of our related articles including “How to Prepare Yourself for a Cold Call,” “60 Cold Calling Tips to Close More Sales,” and “The Guide to Cold Calling Statistics,” to learn more about how to succeed at this challenging, yet potentially rewarding sales approach.


What is the success rate of cold calling?

The success rate of cold calling can vary widely depending on various factors, such as the quality of the calling list, the skill of the salesperson, and the industry being targeted. According to a study by Baylor University’s Keller Center for Research, the average success rate for cold calls is only about 1-3%.

How many calls does it take to make a successful sale?

The number of calls it takes to make a successful sale can vary significantly. Some sales experts suggest that it takes an average of 8 cold call attempts to reach a prospect, while others suggest that it can take up to 20 attempts. However, even with multiple attempts, only a small percentage of cold calls typically result in a sale.

What is the average duration of a successful cold call?

The average duration of a successful cold call can also vary depending on the industry, the product, and the type of sale being made. In general, most successful cold calls are short and to the point. However, studies by Sales Insight Lab indicate that the longer the conversation goes, the better chance of a sale or follow-up appointment being made.

What role did cold calling play in shaping popular culture?

Cold calling has not only influenced business but has also left its mark on popular culture. It has been featured in numerous films, TV shows, and literature, often portraying the persistence of salespeople. Notable examples include the iconic “Glengarry Glen Ross” speech and the portrayal of telemarketers in the movie “The Boiler Room.” These depictions reflect society’s mixed feelings about this sales technique.

Are there any fascinating historical anecdotes about a successful cold call?

One intriguing story is that of Charles Darrow, who successfully pitched his idea for the board game Monopoly to Parker Brothers through a cold call in 1934. This chance call led to the creation of one of the most iconic games in history, demonstrating the power of a well-timed and persuasive cold call.