Getting Through to the One in the Know
Once you’ve identified the individuals you want to talk with, your next challenge is getting through to these knowledgeable people. Depending on time constraints, I’ll use a combination of phone calls and emails. Providing a referral (“Your colleague, Joe, suggested I speak with you.”) or some context (“I was interested in your talk at the Kitchen and Bath show”) increases your response success rate.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my return rate using LinkedIn. I subscribe to the premium edition, which provides unlimited profile searches and numerous filters. The ability to send InMail notes to potential subjects is priceless, especially given the challenges of contacting people using the internet. Even with LinkedIn, often members don’t provide contact information on their profiles, so it’s difficult to reach out to them. With Premium, I receive credits each month to send direct messages to LinkedIn members.
For example, I want to introduce myself to sales directors who are employed currently at Moen Incorporated, located near the Ohio headquarters. Here is my formula for using LinkedIn:
Use Advanced search features.
Filter by keywords, company name, current employees, located within 100 miles of Cleveland/Akron postal code.
Retrieve six profiles fitting criteria.
Read profiles looking for employment history and locations, touted expertise, commonalities in school attended, hobbies, groups.
Send InMail messages introducing myself.
Here’s an example of an InMail message I might send:
Subject: Industry Expertise – Building Materials
Dear Mr. Jones, I am researching the plumbing industry and came across your LinkedIn profile. Given your background in the building materials business, I look to you as an industry expert. Please, do you have availability Monday, September 25 at 2:00 pm? If this doesn’t work, please suggest an alternative. Nothing confidential or proprietary … opinion-based only. I look forward to hearing back and thank you in advance. Sincerely, Judith Binder, RBSC Corp. and fellow MBA, Kellogg ‘95
Recognize that the subject will check you out before responding. Make sure your online presence reflects how you want to be recognized—a professional business/market researcher.
Keeping you from getting through to the person you’ve identified as a great contact are gatekeepers. They are the administrative assistants whose boss is never in. Even worse is the automated attendant, particularly when you are clueless about a subject’s extension. Dealing with gatekeepers is frustrating, but do your best to be patient, positive, and polite. Dial the customer service number and say, “I’m not sure who to talk with about this, but perhaps you could help direct my call.”
When the gatekeeper is an automated voice and no matter how hard you try, you can’t connect with a human being, you have a choice to leave a voice message or not. Typically, I’ll leave one voice message, then move on to the next subject.
A cautionary note: Be cognizant of time zones. Don’t call on Monday mornings. Try Tuesday start of business or Thursday late in the afternoon. Offer to conduct the call before or after business hours. If you leave a voice message, specify your time zone.
Congratulations. You landed the interview. You’ve done your homework and are prepared, with the interview guide on your computer screen and note-taking materials by your side. So, why the hesitation, the lack of confidence, the negative thoughts?
Practice makes perfect. Whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned veteran in primary research, the first few interviews will probably be throwaways. Start with less-important interviews and make your mistakes with them. Work your way up, beginning with the manager, then moving on to the director and vice president. You become better at eliciting information by improving as a conversationalist and increasing your confidence. Stick with it. We all make mistakes. Learn from them, pick up the phone, and make the next call.
If you simply can’t get out of the blocks, take a break. Recognize the conversation won’t always go the way you’ve planned.
I like to think of primary research as a conversational hourglass. As you approach the conversation, consider doing the following:
Establish the outcome you hope to achieve.
Make note of conversational techniques you’ve used successfully in the past.
Create a summary of what you know about the subject you will be speaking with.
Understand the importance of listening, memory, and flexibility.
Reword your questions to motivate sharing.
It’s usually best to start with preselected, open-ended, nonthreatening questions that make the subject feel comfortable and at ease. After the call, people typically will remember the end of the conversation, so conclude with additional preselected questions about other general topics.
Ask the most important, specific questions in the middle of the conversation.
In closing, express appreciation. I ask if I can contact the subject again if I have additional questions after reviewing my notes, as I might have missed something or lack clarity on a particular point. In addition, it’s smart to ask for referrals. Rather than a cold call, the referral is a way to warm up the next call. “I was speaking with John Smith, the head of purchasing. He suggested I contact you.”
The bottom line is to consider who you are talking to and which questions need answers. I try to think of all the ways the person might answer them, so I am prepared, to the extent possible, for the unexpected. However, calls seldom go as planned. You are dealing with another human being. Be flexible and prepare additional questions for the unexpected turns of an interview. Don’t take yourself too seriously and keep smiling.