Cold calling: How to respond to "I don't have time"?

by Steli Efti

When Donald Trump says he has “no time” for political correctness, what he really means is that he’s chosen not to make it a priority.

It’s the same way with your customers. Unless you happen to cold call someone whose office has just caught on fire, it’s pretty likely that “I don’t have time” is just a polite way of saying “Go away,” or “What you’re offering is not a priority for me.” After all, if they really didn’t have time, they would have just hung up on you.

And yet, your average salesperson still hears “I don’t have time,” stammers, gets nervous, and hangs up. It’s a difficult objection to deal with—we’re not used to responding proactively to “I don’t have time.” You can’t really argue with it, because who are you to question whether someone really has time?

A great salesperson, however, finesses this objection around into further conversation. A great salesperson hears “I don’t have time” and recognizes that it’s time to drive home the core value proposition that will get that customer to stay on the line.

Think about it this way. If your potential customer was convinced, deep down, that they could make $8 for every $1 they spent with you, would they still tell you they don’t have time? No! They’d rush to keep you on the phone, and spend as much money with you as they possibly could.

"The main thing when you are engaged with a client, dream client, or prospect is to create value during every interaction. The more value you create, the more valuable you are to your client. The greater the perception of value, the greater the likelihood you gain a commitment that moves you forward together."—Anthony Iannarino

Your #1 job when someone tells you they don’t have time is to demonstrate all the value and upside you can bring them, proving that you are worth their time.

You need to work around this objection by showing the value at every turn, whether this objection pops up early in the sales cycle, or later and more insidiously, toward the end of the process.

Early stage objection

No one likes getting cold called, and the “I don’t have time” objection is often a polite way of shooing you away early in a call. But this knee-jerk reaction is your chance as a salesperson to differentiate yourself and your product from the swarm of telemarketers out there selling candy and cable upgrades.

At this stage, you need to acknowledge the value of your customer’s time, and show them why they should give it to you. Emphasize with their position, but make sure you grab their attention and hook them on value.

Sales rep: “Hey, I get that, maybe it’s not worth your time! The last seven people in your field who I talked to said that as well. And they were all wrong. Just give me three minutes to see if you’re right—let’s confirm that talking to me is not a wise investment of your time.”

Be polite, charming, and decisive. Give them compelling proof for why they should stay on the line, and why they’d be missing out if they hung up. Most customers will be willing to give you a few more minutes—which is all you need to start establishing value.

Pitch to priorities

Use this time to show how your product or service can help them meet their goals today. Pitch to their priorities by asking questions.

Ask questions that will help you understand what your customer's needs are, while demonstrating your expertise and authority in the field:

  1. What is your number one priority at this point? Because if you’re like the other customers I talk to in the field, your number one goal for next quarter is ______.
  2. Is this something that matches your priorities or are you thinking something totally different?
  3. If not, what are your top priorities right now?

There are lots of fluffy things about your product or service you could choose to emphasize. But you shouldn’t start spouting a list of features just because you think they're cool. You need to tailor your value proposition to the specific needs of your customer.

Remember the old sales parable about the guy trying to sell a home-heating system to a little old lady? He starts off by talking all about BTUs, his company’s achievements, his CEO’s resume, and continues until she stops him. She just has one question she wants to ask: “But will it keep a little old lady warm?”

The only thing your customer really cares about is how your product is going to help them solve their problems now—how it's going to help them increase revenue, cut costs, whatever it is. Figure out these priorities, and you'll know exactly the tactic you need to lock your pitch down and make your core value proposition as targeted and effective as possible.

If you handle it right, that initial objection can be your friend. It gives you a window into the things they do have time for, and hammers home to your customers that you’re truly committed to helping them succeed. It’s this commitment that will close deals.

Late stage objection

It’s a completely different beast when you hear “I don’t have time,” toward the end of the deal. You’ve aced the initial call, exchanged some emails, maybe even had an online demo, and then they hit you with it: “Ah, I don’t know, we don’t really have time for this right now,” or, “This just isn’t really a priority for us at this time, we’ll check back in with you down the line.”

It’s frustrating and hard to understand. “You already gave me so much of your time!” you think.

When this kind of objection appears toward the end of the sales cycle, it means that you found a customer that was willing to hear you out without being 100% convinced of the value you could deliver.

Just think of it as a more indirect version of the cold call rejection. Now you really know that they do have time and are just unconvinced.

You essentially made one of two mistakes.

  1. You pitched ineffectively. You didn’t demonstrate your solution’s core value, and they’re just saying this as a “nice” way of shooting down the deal.
  2. You sold them well—at first. They came into the sales cycle thinking your services might be worth their time, but by the end of the deal, you’d persuaded them otherwise. Ouch. That sucks.

Do not write an email. Pick up the phone as quickly as possible, because you’re about to figure out where you went wrong.

Foster trust

Be aware that as a salesperson, you put your customers at risk. If your solution fails, or your company goes under, then they will have made a huge mistake, and this reality often sets in for them toward the end of the sales cycle. To combat this fear, you need to foster trust.

Say, “Hey, I need your help. We went through this whole process and it breaks my heart to think it was all for nothing. I did something really, really wrong, clearly. Just help me figure out where I went wrong. Help me understand.”

They’ll usually start backtracking: “No, no, no. It’s not you. It’s us.”

People are trained to be polite, rather than tell you about the mistakes you made or where you went wrong. Level with them, and demonstrate that you’re willing to hold yourself accountable to your own shortcomings. In doing so, you’ll build up the trust you need to push the sales conversation past a dead-end.

Step up: “No, I don’t accept that, because my job is to help you. My job is to help you succeed and I’m clearly failing at that. Don’t take this responsibility away from me: what did I do wrong? How did I misunderstand your priorities, and what are they actually?”

Open up to your customer. Being vulnerable and transparent makes it easier for them to trust you and reciprocate your honesty, which is what you want above all else. Only then can you move past the objection and into the heart of the real problem.

You don’t close deals being dishonest: you close deals with mutual understanding. You close deals when customers believe in you, your company and your product.


Turn the conversation back to priorities. If you’re getting a “We just don’t have time” this late in the sales cycle, it’s a good indicator that you missed your chance to really get a good understanding of your customer’s problems and priorities. This is your last opportunity to fix that mistake. Customers don’t want to be sold to: they want someone who’s going to work together with them to figure out the best solution.

Deliver value on all fronts

If you absolutely can’t get your customer to change their mind, then don’t push it. Offer them a referral to another company or service if you know one that might fit their needs better. The end of the deal doesn’t have to be a dead end: if you handle it gracefully, your perseverance, honesty and authenticity will pay off.

Cultivate a mindset that revolves around delivering value in as many ways as you possibly can, and prove it not just by pushing past the “I don’t have time” objection, but also by knowing when to let it rest. If you can do this, then objections won’t be obstacles, and no matter what happens you will have done well by your customers.

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