How do we appropriately ask for what we want from others in the business world? Is there a right way and a wrong way? I am approached somewhat frequently with requests for help from both professionals in my network and people I don't know. Some requests evoke an immediate favorable response from me. Some make me pause and reflect before I respond and still others make me cringe because of the way I am approached. Why the broad spectrum of reactions?
Before beginning this post, I chatted with a few other professionals about their experiences on this topic and analyzed the last several requests for assistance I have received. What I learned from this exercise is that many people seeking help often lack self-awareness and fail to recognize how they come across to others. They often have a genuine need for help, but the way the need is communicated comes across one-sided and self-serving.
BEST Practices for Seeking Help
• Be courteous. I am sometimes amazed at the lack of common courtesy in the requests I receive. "Please" and "thank you" and "I am grateful" should be a given, but many times, aren't.
• Offer help before asking for help. An offshoot of courtesy is to make sure the person receiving the request knows you desire to help them as well.
• Provide context. How did you find me (if we do not know each other)? Why do you think I can help you?
• Do your homework. Know as much as possible about the person you are seeking help from before reaching out. Doing research and sharing some of it in your communication makes your approach seem less random and will evoke a warmer response.
• Spotlight the connections. How are you connected? Are there common friends? Shared interests or organizations?
• Be clear and direct. Don't make the person being asked for help do any legwork. Be clear about what you are asking for or who you are looking to meet through this person. Remove all of the guesswork. If you are a job-seeker (the most common requests I receive are from this group), ask if you can forward your resume and target company list. This is very helpful.
WORST Practices for Seeking Help
• Don't be respectful of time and calendars. The person you are reaching out to may be extremely busy and your need will likely not be their top priority. Acknowledge your respect for their calendar in your communication as you make your request.
• Act like you are old friends to people you barely know or don't know at all. A common complaint from other professionals is help requests from people they haven't seen in years or have never met who act like their best friend. It comes across as false and is an immediate turn-off.
• Make it all about you. Don't make your request about only your issues and needs. Inquire about the other person and how they are doing and at least make it obvious you have some sincere interest.
• Use a shotgun approach. One of the most ineffective methods of asking for help is the blind copy approach where someone requests that we "keep them in mind if we see any interesting opportunities which fit their background." Another variation is to email someone directly with "I would love to meet anyone in your network who needs a good operations guy." This is ineffective and not likely to bring a positive result.
• Send an unsolicited request to connect on LinkedIn with minimal information. LinkedIn is a wonderful tool for building a network, but don't send random requests to connect without providing a reason. Positive examples: "We have several mutual friends" or "We worked together at ABC Company several years ago" or "I read an article in which you addressed connecting strategies. I have shared this with several friends and would like to connect with you if you don't mind."
• Fail to follow up and show gratitude. This request for help should not be the only time you reach out to this individual. Follow up with the results of their assistance and absolutely let them know you are grateful.
Here is an example of a request for assistance (from a job-seeker) which is likely to receive a favorable response:
Good morning. We have not met in person, but I recently learned our children attend the same middle school and Mike Baxter is a mutual friend. Mike spoke very highly of you and suggested I reach out regarding my job search. I recognize how busy you are, but would you be open to me sending my resume and target list of companies? Do you have any time over the next two weeks to have a phone conversation or even a coffee/lunch meeting? I am very flexible regarding a call or meeting and will meet you anywhere that is convenient to your home or office.
I have an extensive network of senior executives and would be very happy to help you with connections to this group if you would find it helpful. Please let me know if you do. At the risk of being premature, I would also like to invite you to join my LinkedIn network in order to let you see my profile and my connections. I will forward this request on later today.
You have my sincere gratitude for considering my request. Is there anything I can do to prepare for our conversation to make it more productive?
This example is likely to get a favorable response from me and other professionals as it addresses most of the important issues. As you reflect on this post, put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other end of your request. How would you respond to requests straight from the "Worst Practices" list? If you are not clear about how you come across, reach out to the last few people you have solicited assistance from and ask the question: "How did you perceive my request and are there ways I could have improved it?"
We all need to ask for help, myself included. How we ask for this assistance is critical and increasingly it seems that many of us are forgetting the fundamentals of effective business communication. Nobody is discounting the genuine need for the active assistance of others in a job search, desire for new customers, need for advice or whatever is behind the need to make these requests, but taking the time to gauge our approach and the potential response on the other end can make all the difference in making this effort more successful.
(Image purchased and used with permission by Getty Images).