Oh no…it’s in my inbox again. Or my LinkedIn message section. Or my Messenger account.
“Hi Cathy, We seem to have a lot in common. Why don’t we get together and talk about our businesses?”
Now I get this sinking feeling, especially if the sender seems extremely nice and well-intentioned. They might even be someone I know.
Before the pandemic, it was worse.
After a networking event, people would call and say, “Let’s go have coffee.” Now we’re talking about a two-hour chunk of time, because we have to find transportation.
I’ve met business owners who claim these coffee dates led to meaningful outcomes – even lucrative clients.
That’s never happened to me. In fact, when I get an invitation, I wonder, “How successful can someone be if they’ve got time to spend on coffee dates with people they don’t know? Can they afford to hire a consultant or copywriter?”
Occasionally the coffee dates could lead to a good story.
Once, after a networking event, a financial planner invited me for coffee at one of my favorite spots. Apparently, he assumed (a) I had money and (b) I’d be thrilled to invest with an inexperienced professional I’d met at a networking event.
During our conversation, he told me he played football in college. I was impressed. HIs university was no powerhouse Alabama or Florida, but they’d sent a few kids to the majors.
But then, he went on, he’d also had a brief career in the pros.
Wow…I really was impressed, especially when he modestly identified his pro team: “The Eagles.”
So when I got home, I did what any normal Internet junkie would do. I googled his name and “Philly Eagles.” Sure enough, there he was…a walk-on for summer camp, cut at the end of training with zero stats.”
To this day, I wonder why he (a) decided to exaggerate his football prowess; (b) didn’t expect me to check – he knew I work online; and (c ) why he thought I’d hire someone to manage my money after they made a major misrepresentation.
Who’s got time to meet with strangers?
When I was living in Seattle, I got a call – out of the blue – from someone whose name seemed familiar. She would be in town and wanted to set up a series of coffee dates. I was inclined to agree until she said, “Just what do you do, exactly?”
“Did you go to my website?” I asked. “Or my LinkedIn profile?”
“That’s why we need to meet,” she said indignantly. “I need to learn more about you.”
I wasn’t particularly tactful. I asked why she wanted to meet me if she didn’t know anything about me. Suppose I was a basket-weaving specialist?
Here’s a better way to set up coffee dates
As I got busier, I would respond to those coffee invitations with something like, “I’ve found that these calls are more productive when we have a specific agenda. Do you have specific suggestions for me?”
In her excellent book, The Long Game, Dorie Clark addresses this question in a chapter on Saying No. When we’re afraid to say no, she explains, we remain in “reaction mode…so focused on what’s coming at you that you never create your own agenda.”
She suggests a response that’s far more polite than mine – one I’m going to start using myself, with minor modifications:
“I’d love to see if I can be helpful. Can you tell me a bit more about what you’d like to discuss, and how I can be useful to you in particular?”
In my experience, a polite request for clarification leads to two possible outcomes. One, I never hear from the person again. Two, I get a second message, filled with a clear, specific agenda.
We can explain this dynamic with storytelling.
When someone sends a “Let’s have coffee” message” with no agenda, without doing their homework, they’re working off an incomplete story.
Maybe they got the idea from a well-meaning mentor – someone who’d never done this themselves, or who’d gotten lucky with a few coffee dates. In their story, their character isn’t a busy, successful business owner. Their character is a curious bystander.
And they’ve given no thought to the other character in the story – the business person on the receiving end of the invitation.
When you invite me for a coffee date, real or virtual, I’m the customer. You need to talk to my backstory. What challenges do I have? What can you bring to the table?
Getting the backstory wrong will mark you as an amateur. One business owner got an email inviting her to find new romantic relationships. She’s been happily married to the same spouse for over 40 years.
Every so often I get the perfect message – as elegant and polished as a rare gem.
“Hi Cathy, I’ve been to your website. I see you’ve got a unique perspective on storytelling. I’ve got a membership site. I’d like to talk to you about doing a presentation to my audience, introducing them to storytelling. Would you be open to a phone chat to talk about it? I’d be happy to send additional information by email as well.”
And if you really want to warm my heart (shameless plug here): add these sentences:
“I listened to your podcast – specifically, the episode on “your mess is not your message” and “creating a persuasive message.”
Substitute any titles, add something to show you really listened (instead of just reading the blurb), and I’ll be more motivated to explore ways we can work together.
Blog posts work too!