Looking back over the past two decades, during periods of both economic prosperity and decline, one of the most uplifting things I’ve witnessed is the willingness of many people – at times, even complete strangers – to lend a helping hand to others when they’re looking for work.
In truth, there are literally hundreds of stories I could share about good Samaritans in the workplace. Situations where anxious job hunters were given just the right break from a networking contact or “taken under the wing” of somebody eager to help them succeed. And yet, there are others, too, who haven’t experienced nearly as much success in this regard. Folks who report reaching out to lots of people for assistance, during their job search, without much to show for it in the way of useful responses or constructive, helpful feedback.
Alas, while there are many potential reasons why a given networking request might plummet into the black hole, there’s one common denominator that I’ve seen impact the results in many such cases – one that, thankfully, is easily fixed. It’s knowing how to ask for a favor in the right way.
Guideline #1: Don’t act entitled – give them an out!
The first guideline I’d give anybody on the networking circuit today is to ditch any thoughts of deservedness or entitlement. Simply put, outside of the most unusual scenarios, nobody in your network actually “owes” you a favor. It’s a gift, not an obligation. So whenever you’re reaching out to somebody for assistance, whether in person or via a technology platform like LinkedIn, pay attention to the tone of your message. Make sure it’s clear that while you would love any help the other person may choose to give, you don’t feel automatically entitled to their time and attention.
Along these lines, I’d recommend most favor requests start with language that gives the recipient an obvious “out” of some kind. You might kick off your message with a phrase like “Feel free to say no…”, for example, or perhaps “No worries at all if you’re busy, and don’t have time to lend a hand, but I was wondering if you might happen to have a few quick minutes to share some thoughts on…”
By following this practice, your odds will go way up of receiving the help you’re requesting, since most people’s eagerness to assist quickly wanes if the person reaching out to them seems arrogant, obligated, or trying to give them a guilt trip.
Guideline #2: No hidden agendas; be clear about what you want
The next best practice for improving your networking response rate? Don’t beat around the bush or be evasive about your goals. Most of us have learned to be suspicious of people who ask for a conversation with no clear indication of the intended purpose. At best, we fear we might be ambushed by an awkward sales pitch, or at worse, served with a subpoena or hit up to join a pyramid scheme. On top of this, the continued growth of e-mail spam certainly hasn’t made the average person any more trusting in this regard.
So if you’re actively looking for a job, and need a favor, don’t dance around things. State to the other party that you’re in the midst of looking for a new opportunity (you’ll get immediate points for integrity) and then move on to the specific question or topic you were hoping to get their input around. No need for hidden agendas—and the more up front with people you are about this fact, in a positive way, the more comfortable they’ll likely be in assisting you.
Guideline #3: Drop the name of folks you know in common
In many networking scenarios today, the help you’re seeking involves reaching out through a “friend of a friend” and getting a referral of some kind. If this is the case, state this as a core part of your networking message. Reinforce the name of the individual you know in common to not only clarify how you got the target person’s name and contact info – but also to infuse your request with added trust, urgency, and credibility. This includes cases when you’re reaching out to somebody through a social media site, like LinkedIn. While the mutual connection is readily apparent when networking using these sites, I’d still suggest you drop the name of the mutual friend in your note or voicemail, just to provide reassurance and help lower the shields a bit.
Guideline #4: Don’t ask for the moon and stars
Let’s be honest. It’s simply not appropriate to ask somebody you’ve never met to personally recommend you for a job. Or write you a testimonial. Or drop everything they’re doing to have lunch or coffee with you. So shy away from those types of drastic requests and instead ask the other person for information that’s quicker, easier, and more comfortable for them to share – like a few details about the culture of the place where they work, some tips on the hiring process, some insights into a company’s current business challenges, or advice on which department or recruiter might make the most sense for somebody with your career goals to contact. Such requests are easy to grant since they only take 5-10 minutes via a phone or e-mail exchange and are much easier for the average professional to slot into their daily calendar.
Stated another way, start by trying to hit a networking single or double, instead of wildly swinging for a home run, and you’ll usually be more successful. In fact, when you start with a small, respectful request, things often tend to snowball and other people’s generosity can end up really surprising you. I’ve seen boatloads of cases over the years, in fact, where a client asked somebody for just a few minutes of time and ended up receiving over an hour of help and advice, in return!
Guideline #5: Share the good news and follow up
Last but not least, and one of my own biggest pet peeves about networking, involves people asking for some sort of favor (e.g. referrals, advice, feedback) and then completely dropping off the radar, never to be heard from again. If you’ve been in that situation, yourself, you know what I’m talking about. You’re left wondering if the person actually applied your advice, whether it amounted to anything, and/or whether there was a “happy ending” of some kind. I hear complaints about this issue from a ton of helpful souls all around town, confused as to why somebody would take the time to ask them for assistance—but not apparently have the time or inclination, down the road, to close the loop and update them on their developments.
So when asking for favors, recognize that your obligation doesn’t stop after you’ve initially met with an individual or obtained their assistance. If you really want to build lasting relationships, make a note to circle back around to the person who did you a solid – and quickly, and unobtrusively, update them on your progress.
In closing, while I realize many of the above tips might seem fairly obvious to those who are already experiencing solid success on the networking circuit, not everybody is a natural at this stuff — and I still see many favor requests violating a few of these core principles. Hope they’re helpful!