A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
I just suffered through the worst "can you help me" call of my career.
It was a rather hapless soul who was seeking my help networking within Santa Barbara's startup community. Fortunately, this particular call was brief. In the fifteen minutes that we chatted, the caller made some shocking networking mistakes.
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It started when a well-intentioned colleague introduced me to the caller via email, without first confirming with me that the intro was welcomed. As described in Why Blind Intros Suck, it is more often than not a waste of everyone’s time: mine, the person making the introduction and the person being introduced.
Lesson: Always allow your contacts to opt out of a proposed introduction by first asking their consent.
Affinity? – Effective salespeople understand that establishing affinity at the outset of a conversation is extremely important. However, rather than ask me how I knew the person who introduced us, the caller launched into his consulting pitch. If he had asked, he would have learned that I had not spoken with our "mutual acquaintance" in over 10-years and I frankly was hoping the caller could shed some light as to why the long-lost acquaintance connected us.
Lesson: Similarities breed liking and liking leads to a desire to help. Seek similarities when making small talk.
The Ask? – During our email exchange before our call, I had to ask the caller what he wanted. Ideally, he would have made this clear without me having to inquire as to his intentions. It turned out that he was seeking consulting projects at startups. If he had spent any time reading my blog, he would have learned that I am not a fan of consultants, especially at startups.
Lesson: Succinctly state what you want. It is acceptable to politely ask for something when you are networking. Busy people don't have the time or patience to decode vague requests.
Research? – I do not expect everyone I speak with to be a fan of my humble blog. Thus, not knowing my position regarding startup consultants is understandable. However, I do expect someone looking for a favor to spend a few minutes exploring my background.
Despite the ease with which anyone can determine my investments and past operating roles, the caller asked me if I knew the CEO of RightScale. “Yes”, I replied, “I was a seed investor and an Advisor to the company.” I should have completed the sentence with, “as is clearly noted on LinkedIn.” He then asked me if I knew the Co-Founder of Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix). “Yes”, I replied, “we worked together for five years.” Again, this would have been clear to him if he has spent 30-seconds reviewing my bio.
The caller had apparently met both gentlemen recently, but had not connected the dots between them and me. An important aspect of effective networking is to understand how the person you are speaking with relates to other members of your network. Significant affinity can be created by drawing lines between yourself and friends of the person with whom you are networking. However, in order to draw such lines, you must first do a bit of homework.
Lesson: Understand how the other party is connected with your network. As noted above, significant affinity can be created by uncovering common friends and acquaintances. However, in order to make such connections, you must first do a bit of homework.
Proactive – Not only had the caller not done any research on me, it was clear he also had not properly canvassed Santa Barbara for potential prospects. Rather than ask for my opinion on particular companies, he wanted me to do his market research for him, asking, "What's going on in Santa Barbara? Are there any companies I should contact?"
Lesson: Don't make the other party do any heavy lifting. Suggest specific, potential referrals.
Self-aware? – At the end of the call, despite our total lack of rapport, the consultant still went for the close, asking, "Will you recommend me to some of the startups you work with?". Blinded by his lack of self-awareness, he was surprised when I replied, “No, I don’t think so.”
The call might have ended differently if the caller had started our conversation by explaining how we were connected and demonstrating that he had an understanding of my background. A more effective approach would have been:
“John, I really appreciate your time. I was checking out your YouTube channel and I enjoyed your recent talk with Brad Feld. I have been a fan of TechStars from afar and it was fun to hear his thoughts firsthand.
I also noticed that you are an investor in RightScale and that you were a member of the senior team at Expertcity. I recently met the Founders of these startups and I was impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit and drive. They both insisted that I reach out to you as they felt my consulting skills might be well suited to some of your startup investments.”
Lesson: Assess the affinity you have (or have not) developed during your conversation and tailor your "ask" to fit the tenor of the discussion.
One might think the caller was a young person still learning the networking game. If that were the case, I would not have been provoked to write this article. I appreciate that young people learn “on the job” and thus I wouldn't have judged these missteps so harshly. Sadly, the caller had been a consultant for over twenty years and should have known better.
Paraphrasing the sage philosopher Jack Black in the film School Of Rock, “Those who can’t do, consult. Those who can’t consult, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” This consultant would have made an awesome gym teacher.
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