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Daniel Gulati

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What to Do When Someone Asks for a Favor

Posted: 05/14/2012 7:23 am

The professional world is powered by favors -- busy individuals helping those in their extended networks land highly-contested roles, get feedback on ideas or connect with influencers, typically without the expectation of either compensation or reciprocation. I've been on the receiving end of many professional favors, the givers of which I'm deeply indebted to. I believe that in today's world, if you don't ask, you don't get, and thats why I'm more than happy to extend favors large and small to others whenever I possibly can.

Lately, though, I've been getting flooded with requests from my extended network. Last week alone, I received 16 job requests ("Get me a job at Company X."), 13 introduction requests ("Introduce me to Person Y.") and 6 feedback requests ("Give me your opinion on Idea Z."). Add in roughly 10 more "miscellaneous" favors, and it starts to become a real time-sink. What's more curious than the absolute numbers are the channels through which these favors are coming -- it's rarely email (since only my close friends and connections know my email address), but a mix of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Transparency is great, but we're reaching a point where the social networks that connect us are making us too accessible. Remember the days where you had to scrounge for someone's email address or their phone number just to get in touch with them? Today, an instant search on LinkedIn or Facebook gives you the power to message anyone about as quickly as you can think of what to ask of them.

In a world where we're becoming saturated with inbound requests, let's not forget the asymmetric value of a favor. More specifically, let's avoid sending out the dangerous new "bulk favor": asking as many of our mutual friends or third-degree connections as we can point and click at for whatever we want, in the hopes that someone will come through with the required assistance. I've been the victim of the "spray and pray" many times, and it definitely wasn't the right way to make things happen. (How did I know that at least one other person was getting the same message? It was addressed to "Matthew.")

Here's the one trick I use to separate those I actually help from those I choose to ignore: Qualify everyone who asks you for a favor. In other words, kindly direct the requestor to take an action to show that they genuinely want what they're asking for. Get in the habit of qualifying, and you'll immediately cut down the number of requests you engage with by at least half, and most importantly, your time will be spent on those that need, want and appreciate your help the most.

Here are some examples of the qualification filter in action:

1. Job favors: When people ask for an interview with your boss (or you), gently ask them to write three paragraphs about why they're the best person for the job, including details of how their prior experience lines up with their desired role. I predict that at least 50 percent of those who originally asked will go silent, because they're playing the odds: they're applying for hundreds of roles, asking multiple people for job favors simultaneously, and therefore won't want to put in the extra work to push any single request. That's perfect, because you can be confident that those who do reply are really serious about the job.

2. Introduction favors: When someone asks to be introduced to a person in your network, it's a two-step process. First, ask the requestor for a one-paragraph summary of their request, so that you can easily forward to the person they wish to meet. Secondly, forward this information to the person in demand, asking them to get in touch with the original individual directly if they desire. Asking the requestor for more context behind the introduction will eliminate the 30 percent of tyre-kickers just "looking to meet with folks," leaving the 70 percent who actually want to meet your contact for a specific reason. Connect away!

3. Feedback favors: When someone asks you for a meeting or phone call to give feedback on an idea, ask exactly what they want out of the meeting, since sometimes more audacious requests are disguised as unassuming feedback meetings. You should also then solicit more materials -- business plans, slide decks, any background information to help you prepare for an eventual discussion. Putting people through this filter usually cuts the original group down by at least 60 percent, leaving the 40 percent who are passionate about their idea, crave your input, and are therefore the exact the people you're more than happy to help.

You're probably start to catch on by now. By qualifying those who ask for favors, you've designed a system that is both effective and efficient: You're quickly identifying those who most want your help, you're not ignoring or denying anyone, and importantly, you're preserving your own valuable time.

This post was originally published on HBR.org.

For more by Daniel Gulati, click here.

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