Recently my phone rang, and up popped the caller ID of an old acquaintance. I’d seen them recently but didn't think we were on a casual phone chat level. Indeed, we weren’t. It turned out they wanted something from me. They were asking me for help, which in itself is absolutely something I encourage. Asking is an art form and needs to be cherished. However, the execution in this particular case was so awkward, that the call went awry — at least from my perspective. It made me feel grumpy. Grumpy enough to put up a blog post on how to approach people for help.
1. Ask, don't demand
I have put a lot of work into building my network, and I’m more than willing to share the fruits of my networking labour, to connect others and help them out. I know that not everyone takes as easily to comfortably chatting with strangers as I do, so I’m happy to give people a leg up. But a modicum of polite respect will make my wanting to help you a lot more likely. You have all the right to ask and you should never bow and scrape. However, you should never take an offer of help for granted either. Give people a way out.
2. Know your target group
Do your research before contacting people and asking them for something. Find out exactly what it is they do and how, if at all, they might be able to help you. For example, if you’re a physicist looking for a post doc position, then you are definitely barking up the wrong tree with me. By asking me for help with that you will be wasting both your time and mine. But does your request fall in the areas of startups, journalism, writing, marketing or film? Are you looking for recommendations for a designer? Then absolutely feel free to give it a shot.
3. Make it easy for me to help you
Don't beat around the bush, just say what it is that you want. Are you looking for a job? Do you need contacts? An introduction to someone specific? Have you not been able to find information on Google and are now asking me for sources? Are you simply looking for advice? A vague “I thought maybe you could help me…” and then trailing off is going to make helping you feel really cumbersome. I don’t want to play guess-the-topic with you. Be specific!
4. Keep it short and simple
Keep the phone call brief. This is not the time for smalltalk and no one expects a nice fireside chat. State your purpose and ask for help, then accept it however it comes your way. Keep a notepad and pencil handy in case you receive some information right away or expect to be told how and when you’ll likely hear back. Speaking of “when”: If you need something urgently, then please state clearly when you need it and I’ll try my best to help you out in a timely fashion.
Try not to ramble. If you get nervous on the phone, do consider writing an email. I, personally, actually prefer emails. I like that they’re non-interrupting, asynchronous, and that I can turn them into actionable items which I can follow up on when it suits me best, i.e. in one of my time slots set aside for communication tasks. [Yes, I’m that organised or, rather, I try to be ;) but more on that in another blog post another time.]
5. Listen closely
Sometimes I have the information you need readily available. In that case I’ll probably draft that email to you right away during our call and even tell you I’m doing so. Please, don’t feel uncomfortable about the short silence that might elapse. If I happen to have the time to tackle this right there and then, you’ll get what you need fast, and I won’t even have to put it on my to do list and switch tasks at a later point.
And if I start sounding strained during the conversation, it probably means that you’re taking much longer to get to the point than I expected. When you hear that tone in my voice, it’s advisable to just offer to send me an email with the details instead of keeping the phone call going even longer.
6. Don’t keep going indefinitely
You know how Columbo always does this thing of walking away from the culprit, and, just when the sense of relief of not having been found out is washing over them, he turns around and says: “Just one more thing…”? Yeah, don’t do that. Let’s assume you’ve asked me for help and I’ve already given it: Feel free to ask for clarification or a follow-up question if you don’t understand something. But, please, don’t start attaching further, and possibly unrelated, questions all of a sudden. State all your topics, if you will, at the beginning of the call.
7. I am not your Google
This is a personal pet peeve of mine, but I know a lot of people that get ticked off by this as well: Do not – not ever, not under any circumstance! – ask me for something that you could easily have googled yourself.
So, those are my ground rules for contacting others asking for help. It doesn’t just go for phone calls, but those seem to be especially hard for everyone involved because of the lack of social cues combined with the synchronicity of the medium. Misunderstandings abound over the phone!
Of course, everyone has their own ideas about how they’d like those situations to go, but at least now you know how to approach one person and can probably extrapolate to others.
What are your ground rules if you have any?