The Complete Guide to Cold Calling Your Way Into Investment Banking
Internship recruiting is over.
And you made a valiant effort, securing 10 interviews with everyone from boutiques to bulge bracket banks – but you didn’t land the offer.
And now you only have a few months before your non-existent summer internship begins.
With recruiting finished, your last, best chance of breaking in is to cold call your way into Wall Street.
But will that even work?
Should you bother going all-out and calling hundreds of firms?
And if you do take the leap, how do you cold call your way in successfully without getting slapped with a restraining order for being too aggressive?
Does Cold Calling Really Work?
This is the most common question about cold calling:
“I’ve tried calling 10 different banks and no one is hiring! I sent my resume to all of them, but I haven’t gotten any responses! What is going on, does cold calling even work? Why are you lying to me?!!!!”
The answer is yes, cold calling does work – but it does not work instantly.
Cold calling and cold emailing work better:
- In developed markets like the US and UK.
- If you’re an undergraduate or recent graduate.
- At tiny boutique banks/PE firms/hedge funds.
It’s questionable in regions like Asia, parts of continental Europe, and Australia – I’ve seen mixed results there, whereas there are dozens of success stories from the US/UK.
That’s because recruiting is more traditional in those places and randomly contacting people is not as accepted socially. So give it a shot, but make sure you pursue other options if you’re in a region where it’s not as effective.
It also won’t work as well if you’re at the MBA level or you have full-time experience because you should be leveraging your network to break in instead.
I’m sure some people have cold called their way into bulge bracket banks and mega-funds, but it’s rare and I don’t recommend spending much time on it – those firms never have trouble finding qualified, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed interns.
And finally, once again: do not expect instant results.
Cold calling is an extended and ego-bruising process where you’ll get bankers yelling at you, writing nasty emails, and acting like Gordon Gekko when he first met Bud Fox.
And unlike Bud, you can’t use insider information to work your way in.
…But Why I’m Still Not a Fan
So cold calling works – but I am still not a huge fan because:
- It can easily turn into a repetitive grind where you spend hours each day calling random banks.
- Networking is much more effective if you do it via referrals and informational interviews.
- Cold approaches are more effective in-person at events like information sessions where you can get the other person to remember you more easily.
- The odds are stacked against you because you have little to offer to banks as a student.
But, you could easily find yourself cold calling anyway if:
- You go to a non-target school where no banks recruit and you have no connections.
- You’ve exhausted all your connections and still haven’t found an internship.
- You can’t make it to in-person events and you live far away from major financial centers.
And remember: all it takes is one.
What Exactly is a “Cold Call”?
What is a “cold call” and how is it different from other types of networking?
The main difference is that you don’t know the other person – unlike contacting alumni for informational interviews, you are randomly calling them and have no previous interactions or connections with them.
You are also much more direct – rather than chit-chatting about their background and asking about what they do for fun outside of work, you ask about internships and recruiting right away.
And if you don’t get a positive response, you persist until you do, you try again later, or you move on to other banks on your list.
On a standard cold call, you might introduce yourself in 1-2 sentences, ask how you can position yourself for an interview at the firm, and then respond to the other person’s “objections” (we’re not hiring anyone, we don’t have the money, etc.) until you get a real answer.
It’s the difference between dating and randomly hitting on people at a bar in search of a one-night stand.
How to Cold Call Like a Champ
It’s a 5-step process:
- Get a list of banks or bankers in your area with their names and contact information.
- Plan your pitch and figure out what you’re going to tell them.
- Place the call and be prepared to respond to their objections.
- Afterward, follow-up at least once a week until they tell you to stop calling.
- Meanwhile, continue to contact and follow-up with other firms on your list.
Timing is extremely important.
You do not want to start cold calling places when it’s still the middle of recruiting season – you should be using other means like weekend trips, informational interviews, and information sessions to contact bankers.
It may seem counter-intuitive to postpone cold calling until the last-minute, but it makes sense for a number of reasons:
- You can focus on your higher probability options first and only spend time cold calling if nothing else works out.
- If you wait until the last-minute, you can find banks that really need interns.
You don’t have to do this – I’m sure some have succeeded by cold calling during recruiting season, but most successful readers started late in the process.
There are a couple ways to do this; the best method is to get Capital IQ access from someone who has it and search for local boutiques in your area.
Failing that, there are over 13,000 firms in the Investment Banking Networking Toolkit and other sources online with names and contact information for firms.
You could also try random Google searches, LinkedIn and even using tools like Google Maps to get names – it really depends on how much time you have left and what your deadline for finding an internship is.
If you live in the middle of nowhere and there are no firms in your area, get your butt out of your chair and hit the road.
Contact firms at the financial center closest to you and make it clear that you’re willing to move there right away.
Refining Your List
One other quick note: no matter how good your source is, do not just blindly call numbers.
Always search online first to verify that the place still exists, that’s it what your list says it is, and spend a few minutes learning something about what they do, recent deals, and so on.
No matter how comprehensive the data, things change every day and unless you’re willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars, it’s impossible to get everything updated in real-time.
Planning Your Pitch
This is the easiest part of the entire process. The main mistakes to avoid:
- Giving your life story rather than a 1-2 sentence introduction.
- Not getting to the point and chit-chatting too much.
So don’t do either of those.
Instead, plan a 1-2 sentence introduction where you say something like, “I know you’re busy so I won’t take too much of your time – I’m a [Major] student at [University Name] and I’ve worked at [Company Names] before. I wanted to see how I could best position myself for an internship at your firm.”
That’s it – this is not rocket science.
Placing the Calls
You do not want to fumble around and say “um” or “ah” too much on the actual calls. You will get better with practice, so I recommend “warming up” with places you don’t care about as much.
Say the same thing to everyone to minimize screw-ups.
Ideally, you will call the bankers directly (higher level is better if you can find them – MDs have more power than VPs, VPs have more power than Associates/Analysts) and speak with someone who has a say in the hiring process.
But more often than not, you will only have their main number – you can still recite the same script, but you need to be prepared for the gatekeeper to respond with their objections and keep you locked out.
Calling vs. Emailing – Cold Emails For the Win?
Right about now, you might be thinking:
“If it’s so hard to successfully get through when cold calling, why not use email instead? Does cold emailing work and is it more effective than cold calling?”
Personally, I am biased against email – but that might just be because I get hundreds of emails each day and can’t even respond personally to 90% of them.
Emails are easy for bankers to ignore or delete, whereas phone calls are harder to dodge. And catching them in-person, of course, is even harder for them to avoid.
But you may still have better luck with cold emailing, especially if you’re not good on the phone.
I’ve seen it go both ways, so you have to experiment and see what works for you. If you do cold email bankers, attach your resume/CV and ask directly in the email how to position yourself for an internship there.
What to Expect on the Calls
Ok, back to calling now – what should you expect when you call and pitch the banker or the gatekeeper?
95% of the time you will get variants of the following response:
“We’re not hiring.” / “We don’t recruit interns.” / “We don’t offer internships.”
Do not give up when they say this or you will never succeed.
Respond by saying, “So you’re in charge of all recruiting for the firm?” or something to that effect – if it’s a gatekeeper they will say no, at which point you then ask to be put in touch with the person who is.
Other strategies for getting past this initial rejection:
- Ask for a banker by name and fib a little by saying you were scheduled to call him/her and ask how you could be put through to talk to him/her (and if you get voicemail, hang up, call back, say you were disconnected, and ask for the number).
- Avoid closed-ended questions (“Do you have any internships?” / “Do you recruit interns?”) with a few exceptions (such as the one about the person being in-charge of all hiring).
Closed-ended questions lead to quick rejections because the person will always respond with “No”; “how” questions are better because you assume that they already offer internships and it’s just a matter of how you will get what they’re offering.
Even when you make it through and speak with a real banker, you’ll run into other objections:
- “We already have someone for the summer.”
- “What value could you add to our firm?”
- “We can’t afford summer interns.”
So you need to be prepared with a response for each of these:
- “Really? So when your deal flow picks up and your hiring needs change for the summer, how could I position myself for an interview so I could help you out?”
- “There are plenty of tasks that you need help with and your time is best spent winning clients – let me handle everything else.”
- “I understand that money can be an issue, so I’m willing to work at below-market rates – and you get a great deal anyway since this is only a trial and I’ll save you more money than I’ll cost you.”
You don’t want to offer up too much at first (e.g. immediately offer to work for free) as that makes you seem desperate; reserve that for when they continue to object.
Persistence vs. Stalking
I’ve gotten a lot of questions on “how far is too far?” and the difference between being persistent vs. turning into a stalker.
You should feel uncomfortable cold calling if you’re doing it correctly.
Unless you have a lot of experience in sales or randomly approaching people, this entire process will be new and uncomfortable to you.
If you think you’re going “too far,” you’re probably not – the only tactics I would consider too extreme are:
- Showing up at the bank’s offices in-person and demanding to be let in (even if you’re not carrying an AK-47 this will result in bad things happening to you).
- Finding out where the bankers live, camping out in their bushes, and then jumping out to pitch them when they arrive at home.
- Calling every day even after they tell you “No” explicitly and warn you to stop calling them.
You know it’s time to move on when they say “No” without even giving a specific reason why – that means they are really not interested and probably can’t be persuaded otherwise.
The first lesson in sales is that an objection is the first sign of a prospect’s interest, and it’s the same idea here: no specific objections, no interest.
I’m sure someone will now leave a comment saying that my advice is crazy and will get you in trouble or result in you getting “blacklisted” (even though nothing like that even exists).
But you are not doing anything unethical as long as you stick to simple calls and emails, so it’s not as if you’re lying about your offer status and forging documents to win interviews/offers.
Expect that some bankers will not like your tactics and will be extremely nasty to you.
On the other hand, some bankers will admire you for having the guts to cold call them and hustle your way into Wall Street.
Even though I satirize bankers here with the “Stuff Investment Bankers Like” series, they do not, in fact, all have the same personality and so their responses will vary.
If you get a negative or sarcastic response, do not take it personally – the banker might just be having a bad day or might be a tool to begin with.
You need a thick skin or you’ll never make it in the cold calling game.
So you’ve cold called several places and gotten lukewarm responses – they already have people for the summer, they don’t have formal internships, or they can’t afford interns.
Rather than giving up, follow-up at least once per week until they tell you, “No” definitively and tell you to stop calling. Many readers have been successful with extremely aggressive follow-up.
You can also email to follow-up and mix up your approach a bit, but I still prefer calls since they’re harder to dodge.
Your follow-up should not be much different – use the same script and just say you’re following up to reiterate your interest and see what has changed since the last time you spoke.
How Long Before You Succeed?
I can’t give you a definitive answer because it’s random – some readers have succeeded in only a few weeks, whereas it has taken others months of networking to land offers.
But you should not expect solid results until you’ve called upwards of 100 firms and followed up with all of them.
That is a lot of cold calling, so you should still pursue “Plan B” options for the summer such as internships at normal companies, private wealth management, and so on.
It took Sylvester Stallone 1500 rejections to star in the first Rocky movie – so please do not complain until you’ve reached at least that number.
This Sounds Really Hard!
At first it is and you will be very intimidated when you cold call MDs at banks. But it gets easier with time and practice, and after a while you barely have to think about it – sort of like interviews and walking through your resume.
I’ve lived in dozens of cities and have “started over” with 0 friends and 0 connections multiple times, so I’m more aggressive than most when it comes to meeting people and showing up uninvited at events – and randomly approaching people is still hard for me.
I still fail and get “rejected” a lot, plenty of what I do leads to failure, and I’d say that less than 10% of my attempts actually result in good stories / good friends afterward.
But it does get easier and less scary with practice – and the good news for you is that the phone tends to be less intimidating than approaching random people in-person.
Next Steps & Further Reading
So, what now?
Get started making your list and placing those calls.
Do not succumb to analysis paralysis and make a flow chart showing every possible response in your planned conversation and what you’ll say next – get a handle on the basics but don’t obsess.
If you want further preparation, check out these case studies, podcasts and other resources:
- How to Break in as an Engineer with No Finance Background – Cold called 120 banks
- From Non-Target and Unpaid Wealth Management Internship to Bulge Bracket Bank – Email better than calling?
- How to Break Into Private Equity Straight Out of Undergraduate – Cold called 50 equity research analysts
- How to Get Into Investment Banking from an Unknown State School – Kept calling, calling, and calling until he got in
- How to Break Into Investment Banking If You Have a 3.0 GPA, Went to an Unknown School, and Only Recently Learned English
- How to Turn Cold Calls Warm – Podcast
- The Investment Banking Networking Toolkit
And now get to work pounding the pavement until you break in.
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