“Cold Calling” anyone is never easy. I had to learn it early in my career. A year after college, while working for McKinsey, I had to “cold call” competitors of our client to find out about their expansion plans in China. I was shocked when I first got the assignment. I remember thinking “how am I going to pull this off? I have to call complete strangers. I can’t tell them the name of my client, but I have to be honest and tell them that my client is their competitor.”
Luckily, I received some very good coaching from my manager at the time and surprisingly with a lot of practice, it went pretty well. To this day, I still use “cold calling” in my job search efforts and in my current job.
What’s the secret to doing it well? Well, more than half of the battle is actually going through with it. At McKinsey, I had no choice, it was my job to do it. That actually made it easier because I can’t decide to back out as I may lose my job. In a job search situation, however, many times we “chicken out.” No manager is watching over our shoulders in a job search. We can come up with many reasons and then simply talk ourselves out of doing it because we feel uncomfortable / nervous and we are afraid of “rejection.”
Don’t get me wrong, even though I learned how to “cold call” more than 10 years ago, I still get nervous every time I do it. That unfortunately doesn’t go away. I just don’t let it stop me because I have seen the surprising benefits of networking with “distant” contacts (access to insider information, valuable advice, introduction to more contacts, etc.). Remember if you don’t do it, you definitely will not receive help. You essentially “rejected” yourself. If you do make the call, there is a good chance you can get the information or help you need. People are much more willing to help than you think as long as you are considerate.
Here are some tips:
- Make it personal - send a personal email or call him/her directly. Don’t hide behind a form letter email that you send to several “contacts” at once. That’s one way to guarantee low or zero response. People want to feel important when you ask for help.
- Get to the point quickly - Everyone is busy. It’s important to be considerate of their time and make your point in the first 5 sentences or first 30 seconds. 1. tell them your name and establish what connect you to them (e.g. alumni of the same school or same company, have mutual friends, etc..), so they know why they should care to listen to you. 2. tell them why you are calling/emailing (e.g. I am in the job market and I am very interested in becoming a product manager in a high tech company. I understand you are a product manager at Google. I would really appreciate it if I can find out more about your experiences and get your advice on how to be successful.) 3. propose concrete options to get their help (e.g., I was wondering if it’s possible to chat with you either over the phone or in person about it. Whatever is convenient for you)
- Be bold and be clear – You will never know what you can get until you ask. So whatever it is you want, ask for it. Worse case is they say no and can’t help. That’s the same result as if you didn’t ask. Many people make the call but actually forget to be direct, leaving the person on the other end confused and often then gives back a generic or no response.
- Pay them a genuine compliment – it’s more effective when you finess the way you ask for help. Everyone want to feel good about themselves. The example I gave above implies that I think the contact is successful at Google and I want their advice. It’s harder to say no when you just paid them a compliment
- Prepare beforehand - especially for a call. You should know roughly what your first 5 sentences are before you call. Remember you will be nervous so knowing what you will say in the beginning will make the call a bit easier.
- Follow up - It’s up to you to follow up if you get no response from an email. Call and leave a voicemail if they don’t answer. Or Call and arrange the meeting or conference call if you couldn’t do it on the first call. There are so many opportunities to “chicken out” in this process – DON’T. Now you are in it, be persistent (without being a stalker!)
- Have low or no expectations – Check in with yourself and see what you expect from making this “cold-call.” If you are expecting them to help, then you are setting yourself up for possbile “rejection”. Just make the effort and expect nothing. If they end up helping, then it’s gravy and if they don’t, at least you got a chance to practice and improve your “cold-calling” skills. Either way, you learn something.
- Appreciate your own effort - “cold calling” is hard to do, so congratulate yourself every time you do something regardless of the results. People lead busy lives and have their own issues, so they may not always be able to help. Either way, you did a brave thing to reach out to a stranger for help. Appreciate your ability to go out of your comfort zone. It’s an accomplishment on its own.
Good luck and let me know how it goes.