Give careful thought to the approach you are going to take either in letter communication or on the phone before you follow up with each person and rehearse your words so that they come over confidently. When you are responding to a letter or email that has suggested you phone to set up a meeting you should call back and say, ‘Hello, I am X and I have been asked to set up a meeting with Mr. / Ms. Y. Can you advise a time that would be suitable?’
If you are initiating a call to a potential networking contact, the conversation should be along the following lines:
‘Hello, Jim. This is John Cook. Susan Smith suggested I get in touch with you and suggested you could help me. I’m currently planning a future career move and Susan advised me that you are the best person to talk to about your industry (or company). I’d very much appreciate it if you could spare me twenty minutes at your office (or over coffee). I am trying to obtain a clearer picture of industry trends and organisations to consider and knowing you have extensive experience in this area, I would really appreciate your advice. I would also welcome the opportunity to get some feedback on my resume and some validation of ideas that I have about my direction and whether I am on the right track.’ Remember senior people do not mind giving advice.
There are two particularly important passages in the above. The first is the phrase ‘suggested you can help me’ and the second is ‘I have been advised that you are the best person to talk to about you industry or company’; these are compliments, which everybody enjoys. It is also an unambiguous request for help. Remarkably few people reject a straightforward request for help, especially when complimented, no matter how busy or senior they are. This approach shows that you are not asking them for a job and, accordingly, they are not placed on the defensive or likely to become ill at ease.
Obviously the substance of the letters or phone calls should be varied if you don’t know the person particularly well or if it has been some time since you last met. In such cases be ready after you’ve said "I’m exploring career opportunities and feel sure you’ll be able to help me’ to sketch in the key features of your career and particularly the title of your current or most recent position. All you need do is give a bird’s eye view so your contact can position you in his or her mind. For example: ‘I am Marketing and Sales Manager in XYZ and after 5 years I am now ready to move to a COO role where my Marketing and Sales background and Chartered Accounting qualification can be put to good use.’
An alternative approach, which we recommend when you don’t know the person particularly well, is to say you are contemplating an industry move, e.g. into the automotive component industry, the textile industry or the chemicals industry. Whilst you have already done a considerable amount of research you feel it would be invaluable to have the opportunity of discussing their views on the industry, its trends, problems and opportunities, companies on the way down or the way up, the state of the job market, salary levels etc.
In such cases phone calls should be along the lines of:
‘Hello, Mr XX. This is John Cook. I’m currently between jobs following a corporate re-structure. I’ve given much thought and conducted some research into the possibilities of moving into the automobile component industry. With your experience I believe you would really be able to help me and I wondered if you could spare me twenty minutes to discuss the problems and opportunities in your industry. Ill bring my resume and if you could glance through it I’m sure you would be able to tell me about the opportunities for somebody with my career history and achievements. I believe you would also be the ideal person to suggest other people in the industry to give me greater insights into its different facets. The average length of the phone call should be about 3 minutes.