You’ve heard it before. When you consider making a career change, we hear that we should “go talk to people” who may help us with the transition. For some people, the idea of networking is already a challenge, and we struggle with questions like how to approach, what to say, how to keep things discrete… But what if you have already figured all this out, tried to ask for coffee meetings but no one agrees to meet you? You’re probably doing something wrong.
Admittedly, I also receive a lot of such requests, and these are the reasons why I refuse to include them:
1. You did not give a good reason to meet with you.
Your request is self-centered. It explains the reason why you want to meet with them. But you did not explain why they should meet you. People meet people who interest them. Try to step into the shoes of the person you are trying to meet. Why would they want to meet you? Why would you interest them? Instead of “I bought your book and I would love to sit down with you over coffee” try “I bought your book and I have a lot of insights about the book’s ability to help people at a career crossroads. I would love to sit down with you over coffee to talk about it”.
2. You asked for coffee to get free advice that the same person provides for a fee.
Networking over coffee is not a code name for a free consultation. If you are a salaried employee, you are used to being paid simply for showing up to work, even if part of that workday includes conversations that are not related to your work. Self-employed professionals, on the other hand, make a living selling a product or service. And although they also make time for networking or paying forward meetings that do not entail any pay, that doesn’t include randomly giving out their service for free. So if the reason you’re asking them for a meeting has to do with something you hard or read that aroused your interest, let them know what that is and they might be interested. But your meeting request has to do with their service or product and you are really trying to get their advice, you need to buy their time or the service they offer and not call it a networking meeting. A request such as: “I heard your podcast on family economics, I would love to meet you for coffee to better understand the tips you gave …” to someone who earns a living from consulting on family economics management is definitely an attempt to get free service. It does not count for a valid networking request.
3. You asked for coffee instead of using Google.
When you turn to someone you do not know and ask them to make time for you (a coffee conversation is time …) it cannot be a shortcut to something you can do on your own. If you are interested in talking to someone based on their content before you ask for coffee just to hear more, pause. Google the topic first. Many people generously share knowledge and content online, in blogs, posts, podcasts, YouTube lectures or through websites and mailing lists. And in doing so, they are sharing one-to-many, enabling you to consume their content. It is not likely they can engage in one on one drill downs with their audience.
One other possible situation with people who create content is that your interest lies with the fact that they are well connected to the up-to-date river of information and you want that too. But a networking coffee session does not replace your need to learn to locate, filter and consume content on your own. “Tell me about <subject matter> …” is not a reason to ask for a meeting. It’s an annoying shortcut to something you can do on your own. What is? A conversation that continues from where the knowledge on the net stops. Discussion, a new angle, context, connection, anything that will constitute for the person you are connecting with a continuation of that river of knowledge, this time with your help.
4. What you really need is a 5 minute favor.
Many times what you really want can take a few short minutes but instead you are asking for a very valuable resource – meeting time. If you are clear on the ask you might discover that instead of getting a “no” on a coffee meeting request you could ask for what you really want and get a “yes”. Even very busy people will be happy to help you with something that takes them a few minutes and gives you significant value. So if what you really want is something that would take 5 minutes, like connecting to someone or specific feedback on a suggestion or idea, ask for that and not a coffee meeting. And a word of warning, if the person doesn’t really know you, don’t ask for a recommendation. Even if it takes the other party 5 minutes, he or she puts their name on that connection or recommendation. So make sure you are asking for something that you too would be willing to do for someone else …
5. You are not turning to the right people.
One of the big mistakes of people asking for networking coffee meetings is the idea that they have to be with someone who is already a known figure in their field. The real purpose of coffee meetings is to learn – learn what we do not know and also about what we do not know we do not know. And that includes extending our network from people we know to people we don’t know. All of these are very, very important to our careers today and in the future. And they really do not require us to meet with senior people or known thought leaders, all of whom are extremely busy. They are also the ones who get a lot of requests for coffee meetings and therefore have to say “no” to most of them. Instead, look for people who will be happy to say “yes” to your request, will benefit from the coffee meeting just as much as you will. These can be people who are a few steps ahead of you on a similar journey, or are working in places that interest you, in areas that you want to learn more about, or have made a change that interests you. The social networks are full of coffee meeting offers that contribute to both parties.
I am a big believer in purposeless meetings. Not necessarily in the job search process but rather while our careers are stable. Meetings without a direct purpose open us up to what we do not know we do not know. I have been doing them for years and advocate for them in my book, in lectures, encouraging people to identify their barriers to networking, to understand why it is difficult and how to overcome the difficulty and go out and meet people for no reason. It is a critical skill for your career.
So it was very difficult for me recently to find out that I had offended someone who asked me for a coffee meeting right after such a lecture and I explained that I could not take the time to continue this conversation one on one. There is something very embarrassing and not simple about having to say “no” but it is necessary. Because the person you’re asking to meet with spends their time on creating the very value that causes you to want to meet with them. And if they said “yes” to every meeting request that came their way, they would not have the time to do exactly the things that make you want to meet them for coffee. So the next time you ask someone for a networking coffee meeting, you should make sure that you also give the other party a reason to meet with you.