What to do? When you meet someone at a business function, whether it be an industry group or women’s conference, that person is a prospect, and it’s okay to think of him or her that way . . . it’s even expected. If you meet the person somewhere else and you’re not sure if he or she would like to be seen as a prospect, you can do a quick qualifier and see how the response. If you say, for example, “Oh, I sell beauty products” to someone who owns a beauty salon, and she says, “What do you think of these appetizers?” you know that she might want to be your friend but not on your call list.
Be purposeful with your best prospects
At the other end of the spectrum are great prospects with whom it is clear from the start that you have something in mind. You have to be clear with them about what you want, too.
Just after I moved from Texas to Washington, D.C., I had lunch at the Jockey Club with a man named True Davis, a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden and high-level pharmaceutical industry executive. True was a mover and a shaker, and it was a real coup that he was meeting with me. I didn’t have a job, needed one desperately, and my mother, who had gone to high school with True, had suggested I call him for help. I did, and he graciously said yes. So I ended up going to lunch at the ritziest place at which I’d ever eaten, with True, who at the time was by far the richest and most powerful man I’d ever met, a man with tons of connections. I hadn’t done any homework on True, so all I really knew was that he was an important friend of Mommy’s. And I hadn’t thought through what I wanted, so I didn’t ask him for anything.
What I got from this encounter was an excellent lunch.
What else could I have gotten? At the very least, I could have procured a few introductions and interviews that would have greatly advanced my job search. I could have said to True, “I’m interested in working on the Hill for Congressman So-and-So, whom I know you know. Would you be willing to give his office a call on my behalf?” Or, “I’d love to get an administrative position in one of those prestigious Dupont Circle associations that I know you belong to. How do you think I should approach them?” At the very most, who knows what more a specific request might have yielded? But I blew it because I hadn’t done my homework, thought through what I wanted, and developed a powerful pitch around it. Which, by the way, he would have expected me to do and respected me for trying.
Even as recently as a few years ago, I still hadn’t completely learned my lesson. Flying back to New York from a speaking engagement in Detroit, I noticed Ram Charan, legendary advisor to senior executives and boards of directors and business writer extraordinaire, sitting in the plane’s first-class cabin. I was very familiar with his work, which I find amazing; to be perfectly frank, I had a big business crush on Ram, he was, at the time, my idea of who I wanted to be professionally when I grew up.
Since I believed then, as I do now, that you should try to meet people who do things you admire, I worked up my courage and seized the moment when I saw him standing alone by the luggage carousel after the plane landed. I forced myself to make an introduction, gushed like a schoolgirl over his work, and asked for a meeting. Tomy amazement, he agreed.
So when I got back to my office, I called his assistant, Cynthia, a lovely woman recognized my neediness and, despite her boss’s very tight schedule, managed a 15-minute meeting wedged in between Ram’s consulting sessions in New York. I arrived at the meeting, immediately offered my credentials (because by this time, at least I’d learned I have to credential myself with blues), and realized I had to make some kind of pitch. So I suggested we find some way to work together in the women’s market. Ram looked vaguely alarmed, told me that wasn’t really his sort of thing, and confessed that he had only agreed to see me because he thought I was someone else — some business muckety-muck’s daughter. A gentleman through and through, Ram then graciously declined my idea. That was it. He did, however, send me a standard issue, unsigned Christmas card that year and has continued to do so every year since, which jazzes up my office.
As much as I appreciate the holiday card, if I’d taken the time to develop a more precise pitch, I might have had a shot at working with new and powerful clients. Maybe if I’d said, for example, “I do a lot of training around relationship management, which would be an excellent fit with the work you’re doing on superior execution, and I think we could do X, Y, and Z together,” I could have at least gotten a second conversation. Instead, I essentially burned a very high-value prospect.
The moral of these stories: Save pitching your best prospects until you have a specific purpose or goal in mind that you can clearly articulate, and until you have thoroughly done your homework, which includes thinking through the benefit of what working with you or otherwise supporting you would do for them. Keep reading I’ll show you how.
Not the usual suspects
At this point, your goal should be to cultivate a diverse group of potential prospects rather than being bogged down by narrow definitions of who can help. So, your prospects might include not just your boss, but your boss’s boss, his counterpart in the next department, and his executive assistant. Not just your colleagues, but your competitors as well. The speaker you admire at a conference and the senior manager you meet at a wedding or party. Anyone with shared interests is a possible prospect, even if you do not share the same immediate goals.
Consider this scenario: You’re up for a plum assignment, along with several candidates in your company, and various decision-makers meet in the corner conference room to choose who gets the nod. Your boss is in the room and you know you can count on his support. But there are several others there, too, who don’t have any reason to support you; in fact, they have reason to argue against you because they want their own person to get the job.
Those people are prospects, too.
So you need to start thinking about indirect ways to cultivate those relationships. At the most basic, you might simply engage them in an occasional conversation. Or perhaps you could provide a useful piece of intelligence now and again “Hey, Tony, I thought you might like to know . . .” Tony still may not actively help you once he gets to that conference room, but he’ll be far less inclined to actively argue against you, and he may be more easily swayed to accept you over the person he’d originally thought would be the better choice.
As for your competitors, think of it this way: If you are competing with someone, you both have the same goal, which implies you have a similar vision. If you view this person as a prospect, thinking about a way to carve out the territory so you can support him or her in his or her piece and he or she can support you in yours, you have turned a competitive relationship into a functional, value-producing one. Politics really do make strange bedfellows.
This is an area where men often have an edge because they do not take competition as personally as we do, nor do they retreat from conflict as often. After a big ball game, men have no problem going out for drinks with players from the other team. We, on the other hand, just want those girls from the other team to go away — they’re bad girls and we don’t want to play with them anymore. We see the relationship context; men see the competition. We see girls who wanted to beat us; win or lose, guys see other guys who like baseball the way they like baseball and that’s what’s most important.
If you can make the mental shift that allows you to see your competitors as both competitors and potential prospects, you put yourself in the right mindset to win.
by Ronna Lichtenberg,
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