Take That Coffee Meeting!

(Author’s note: This post initially appeared on LinkedIn).

I have been a PR consultant for just about six months now. (You should totally hire me. Kidding. No, wait, I’m not kidding. You should.) For the previous two decades, I had worked at tech PR firms around Boston — big firms, firms that got big after I left, and firms I helped grow.

Then earlier this year, with the help of a dear friend and former colleague, I made the leap and hung out a (figurative) shingle (author’s note: I have few real-life skills, and probably would have had to hire someone to attach a shingle to my house).

Then reality set in–and in order to get paid, I’d need clients.

And in order to do so, I’d better get to networking (an activity which I’ve pushed myself to do, despite suffering anxiety around new people — and since I don’t drink anymore, the lubricant of a few beers to make me appear more competent (and witty and handsome) was always off the table). At previous agencies, “grabbing a beer” with a colleague or prospect was second nature … but come to find out, coffee is a pretty decent alternative (and let me tell you, I am an insufferable lover/snob about coffee, so that was fine with me).

I also had a nonsolicitation agreement in place, which limited my options.

So — I began setting up coffee meetings or lunches with anyone and everyone I could, and I found people to be incredibly kind and generous with their time. Through coffees and lunches I was able to meet people who helped me meet other people that became clients; I also re-connected with old contacts, colleagues and friends who were incredibly valuable, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciated their kindness and support. Even when nothing came of these meetings, it was great to discuss concepts, hear their take on the tech PR industry, and just catch up.

Fast forward a few months, and I have a solid number of great clients with whom I’ve partnered. And I love the work. In fact, I’ve had a number of people looking to network with me, just as I looked for help earlier this year.

One challenge every consultant knows: every hour you’re not working for a client is an hour in which you’re not billable. (Note: I’m no longer allowed to use the phrase “billable hours” around the house, as in, “As soon as I do the dishes, I need a little billable hour time.”) So often, my first thought is, “I don’t have time for this.”

That is the wrong approach. In fact, I do have time for this, just like those who helped me early on had time for me. So, I’ve tried to keep these five handy tips in mind:

(Author’s suggestion: do NOT suggest high tea for networking. Although I’ve never been, I understand high tea takes a long time.)

  1. Key guiding principle: pay-it-forward/karma. I am certain there are people who let out a long sigh when they saw that email from me asking for a coffee, and now I find myself feeling the same way: “I don’t have time for this.” And you know what? I do. We’re not going for high tea — it’s coffee, and a chance to show the same kindness, empathy and hopefully, constructive advice I was shown by many kind, patient people.
  2. Ask questions before you meet. I don’t set a coffee agenda, but I come close — mostly through some informal questions as we’re setting up the meeting. “So, what are you up to? Just so I can be prepared, what sort of things can I help you with? Do you like coffee? You like coffee, right?”
  3. Be kind. Empathy is a challenging skill for all of us. Sometimes, someone may not know what they’re looking for — a familiar face, good coffee and conversation may be more valuable than any job-searching tips.
  4. It’s OK to ask them for something. Sure, they set up the meeting, but there’s nothing wrong with a question or two (if appropriate) about people to whom they could introduce you.
  5. Ultimately, it’s OK to say no. I have two very different criteria for saying no: 1) If I simply can’t fit a coffee into my calendar, I say no — then offer dates later on; 2) When someone is being a “time burglar” and requesting a fourth meeting “just to catch up.” Unless you really like this person and want to catch up, it’s OK to say no.

Balancing servicing existing clients and prospecting for new business is challenging enough — but from the good feeling of helping someone else out to the potential of learning something new, there’s always time for coffee.

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