Question of the Month: September 2007

Question: “Although I know it’s an important part of the job search process, I hate the thought of making ‘cold calls’ and contacting people I don’t know in order to sell myself.  Can you help?”

First of all, without disclosing her identity, I want to publicly salute the person who asked me this question and compliment her on recognizing a potential blind spot in her self-marketing efforts — and asking for help around it.  My sense is that she’s not alone, and that a great many job seekers struggle with this issue, but don’t seek out assistance around it and end up convincing themselves, instead, that cold-calling and direct marketing techniques don’t actually work in terms of generating quality career opportunities.  The first excuse is simply unfortunate; the latter one, simply wrong.

As far as how people can go about improving their skills in this area, however, the first point I’d make is that there are many shades of gray in terms of the warmth or coldness of a particular call.  A true cold call (in a job search context) involves calling up a complete stranger, at a company that interests you, and asking them point-blank for an interview.   This is pretty much “absolute zero” in terms of such activities and all but the most diehard extroverts or sales professionals feel squeamish about making these sorts of calls.  You’ll warm the contact up considerably, however, if you can find somebody in your network who can introduce you to an acquaintance at the company in question — or if you conduct enough advance homework on the organization to make your call highly relevant, personalized, and research-focused.  With each ounce of additional context you add to your message, explaining the specific reasons you’re contacting the individual and organization in question, the conversation heats up by a few degrees — and your comfort level should follow suit, as well.

As an example of this, let’s say that you’re trying to explore employment opportunities in the accounting department of a company like Starbucks.  Sure, you could just pick up the phone, call the company’s main line, and ask to speak with the company’s Accounting Manager or CFO.  Believe it or not, a frontal assault of this type CAN and DOES work on occasion, but obviously, the odds are stacked against you both in terms of getting your call routed to the right person, as well as in terms of getting a callback after the fact, assuming you actually are allowed to leave some kind of message.  So the first step that will help increase your odds, as well as your comfort level in making the call, is to identify a specific individual (by name and title) whom it would make sense for you to target.  Ask your friends if they know anybody at Starbucks.  Check the LinkedIn system.  Do a Google search.  Review on-line articles, blogs, and trade publications to see if anybody from Starbucks Finance has been quoted recently in the media.  More than likely, you’ll find at least one living, breathing person to focus your attention on — and by having a specific name in mind, you’ll be much more likely to bypass the gatekeeper or automated phone system.

What’s more, don’t overlook the fact that the specific process you used to find the person suddenly adds a degree of relevance, interest, and intrigue to the conversational agenda that wasn’t available to us before.  If you were given a person’s name by a friend, for example, you might start off by saying: “Hi, my name is Lisa, and I was given your name by a mutual acquaintance of ours, Chuck Johnson, who suggested I give you a call regarding some questions I had about Starbucks.”  Or if you came across the person’s name in an article, you could say: “Mr. Smith, I’m calling with regard to your quotation in yesterday’s Seattle Times article.  I really liked some of the comments you shared about international accounting practices, and frankly, was curious whether you or somebody else in your organization would be the right person to follow-up with regard to my own international finance background — and where it would best plug in to the Starbucks org chart, if an appropriate need arose.”

However you go about it, step one of warming up a cold call is to track down the specific name of an individual to approach — and include “how you found that person” as part of your message.

This accomplished, you’ll then want to create a clear agenda for the call, ideally one that DOESN’T involve asking directly for a job lead, since this puts too much immediate pressure on the person you’re contacting — and likely will generate a “no” response right off the bat.  Why?  Because it’s unlikely that the company will have an opening for you right at the moment, and even if they do, it’s just as unlikely the person you’ve called will happen to know about the lead right off the top of their head.  So don’t go for the kill; conduct a short research project, instead, and ask the person you call for smaller and less volatile pieces of information, such as the names of appropriate departments to target, answers to specific questions about where your background might fit, or advice on the best way for somebody to approach and start building a relationship with the company, if interested in working there.  In general, the smaller and more thoughtful the request, the more likely the person will let their guard down and be willing to provide you with useful feedback.

Lastly, once you’ve got a specific person in your sights and have concocted a reasonable set of questions to ask them, add one final element to your “cold call” script: namely, an immediate statement of appreciation for their time, as well as your understanding that they are under no obligation whatsoever to help you or lend you a hand.  This takes the pressure off and should help dial the awkwardness factor down a few degrees, right off the bat.  In the end, your total pitch might sound something like:

“Good morning, Ms. Palmer.  We haven’t met, but I wanted to give you a quick call at the suggestion of our mutual friend Susan Smith, since Susan passed your name along as somebody who might be able to help me figure out the lay of the land over at Starbucks.  I’m trying to determine where in the Starbucks organization my background in customer service management might have the most relevance, and potential value, although I’m under no illusions that a specific job lead might exist immediately.  I also appreciate that you’re busy, I’m calling you out of the blue, and that you might not have the time or inclination to lend me a hand.  If you DID have a few minutes to share some advice, however, I’d greatly appreciate it and would do my best to return the favor in any way possible down the road…”

Granted, there’s still no magic bullet for overcoming all the jitters of reaching out to an unfamiliar individual, and selling yourself, but hopefully the tips and scripts above can at least raise the temperature of your calls a bit — as well as your comfort level with this important aspect of the job search process!

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