Networking Tip: How to get better conversations by asking smart questions.
Posted by Molly Wendell // in Job SearchNetworking
Don’t ruin a networking opportunity by focusing so much on your job search, you forget the person you’re meeting with might actually know other people in the world. The idea of networking (whether you’re in the search or not) is to open the door to their network. Not close it!
Here’s a great example of how it can get slammed shut pretty quickly. A couple months ago, I gave a contact to my friend Bill. Bill is in the job search and was targeting grocery stores. I told him “go meet with Sharon. It’ll be great!” About a week later, I was talking with Bill and asked him if he had an opportunity to meet with Sharon. He said yes, but it didn’t go very well. Sharon said she wasn’t hiring. I could’ve clobbered Bill right then and there. When I gave Bill the contact to go network with Sharon, it wasn’t to try to get a job from her. It was to network. Find out who she knows. Learn what’s going on in the industry. Instead, Bill tried to turn it into a one-way hiring discussion and Sharon wasn’t interested. What a waste of a great networking contact.
Here’s what I would have done if Bill had given me the referral. Instead of telling Sharon I needed a job (which is completely beside the point), I would start off the conversation like this:
Sharon, thanks so much for taking the time to meet with me. I really appreciate it. Bill said if anyone knows about the food industry, it’s you!
And then I would have continued with questions like this:
- How long have you worked at [company]?
- And where were you before that? How long were you there? (Here, you’re looking for other possible connections)
- What do you see are the biggest changes in the industry?
- Out of all of the players, who do you think is doing some really interesting things?
- What’s changing in the way people shop for food?
- How does that differ within demographic circles?
- What’s the next wave or trend that everyone is trying to implement?
- Which area of the store is most profitable? What trends are going on in this area – and others to increase their profitability?
- Grocery stores are now banks, flower shops, DVD/Video Rentals, Starbuck’s. What’s next?
- Who do you think is going to lead the pack? Who’s going to fall behind? What do you think are their options?
- How big of a threat is consolidation? Or do you think those companies will grow more by opening new formats? What about co-location and joint marketing opportunities?
- How much do the food manufacturers play a role in the future of the store? How is category management affecting profits? Which manufacturers are more progressive and innovative? What kind of things are they doing? Are coupons still big? Does anyone ever redeem those things?
- Where do you think you’ll take the Loyalty Card program? What industries (hotel, airline?) are you taking lessons from, and applying to yours?
- How is Wal-Mart’s foray into grocery (Super Wal-Mart and Marketside) affecting your business? How about Tesco’s Fresh and Easy?
- Who do you think will be your competition in the future – not currently competing with you today?
Throughout this discussion, if Sharon mentioned a name of a company doing innovative, interesting things, I’d ask right then and there if she knew someone at that company. And then I’d say “Great! I’d love to give them a call. Do you mind if I use your name?” Assuming she gives me the okay, then I already have one contact to follow up with. I do this throughout the discussion so I don’t have to end the conversation with “Is there anyone else you think I should speak with about the industry?” Getting the names along with way takes all of the pressure of trying to secure contacts at the end.
Now keep in mind, I haven’t really spent any time in the grocery industry…unless you count the three weeks in college where I worked for Lawry’s & Lipton – merchandising the shelves, refilling the taco seasoning tray (what’s with our country’s obsession with taco seasoning?), and dusting off the bottles of barbeque sauce. I quit after three weeks. It gave me headaches. It’s giving me one right now just thinking about it.
I just came up with these questions because I’ve been to a grocery store. I’ve purchased food. I pass by the Starbucks on my way into the store. I pass by the bank and rental place on my way out. I shop at more than one chain (or at least run in to see what they’re doing). I met some guy on a plane who sold cookies to store bakeries (the trend there is inexpensive multi-packs – 10 cookies for a $1. They fly off the shelves!). I read an article about Tesco. And one about Wal-Mart. I’m no expert when it comes to the industry, but I do know how to get people talking. About this industry or any industry. It’s all about asking smart questions.
Smart questions lead to interesting conversations, which lead to others opening up their network to you. And the more people you talk to and learn from, the better your questions are, the more likely you’ll be able to turn simple networking meetings into job offers (or really great relationships).
Many of those questions can apply to other industries (just substitute a word or two). If you’d like some ideas of questions on a specific industry, just let me know. I’ll come up with some. And maybe you can contribute with your favorite questions to ask as well.