I had coffee last week with a friend of mine.
Actually, that’s already a lie. She’s not a close friend. She’s a former client. I worked with her briefly a few years ago and had a terrific dinner with her that was so expensive, it made the account manager cringe; I literally had to coax my colleague into eating dinner and not starving herself just because she was anxious about submitting the receipt.
The client worked for a well-known automotive brand. Granted, pretty much any car company is well-known. There are few car company logos that wouldn’t be among the most prominent on any agency’s or tech company’s logo slides.
I nominally stayed in touch with the client, who I’ll call Betty, whether or not she worked for Ford. We had meant to catch up sometime in the past year or two but never did. Betty reached out to me several weeks ago to say she was coming to New York for an event, and we made plans to catch up. We grabbed coffee at my favorite spot in New York (Tous Les Jours on 32nd St in Koreatown, with terrific tea and pastries, and most importantly, you can always get a seat). She had since left the car company, which was just as well, as I wasn’t pitching her anything and was curious about what she was up to.
One of the most memorable parts of the conversation was when we talked about how common transactionalism is in business. Betty said how so many people had told her to drop a line whenever she’s in town or shared other such friendly invites. Yet once she left the car company, most of that didn’t matter, and a lot of people stopped responding to her.
I didn’t do anything heroic by meeting her. If anything, she put up with plenty by meeting me, as these days, it’s hard for me not to be pitching something.
I also get where she is coming from, at least to some degree. I haven’t worked on the brand side, but on the agency side, I was often seen as a buyer. Buyers, whoever they are, get wined and dined, and it is much easier to pitch the press, get speaking gigs, and get invites to marquis sporting events when you have any perceived influence over clients’ budgets. When I left Publicis Groupe’s MRY in 2016, I quickly got a sense of who was interested in me for my budget and who was interested in me for me.
There’s a massive gray area here. Some people get busy. Some are just bad at responding to email or checking LinkedIn. Some people need a few reminders before they get back to you. I’ve seen those threads on LinkedIn in particular where I totally ghosted someone by accident, and I do that too often, especially if I forget to mark a message as unread when it comes.
But a lot of people really only care about what power, influence, and budget you have today that could directly help them. All that matters is the transaction or the potential transaction. You’re a dollar sign, and if the sign’s too low, you don’t matter.
The flipside to this is that by being non-transactional, we can differentiate ourselves. We make it clear that the person comes first, and the title and company are tied for a distant second.
That doesn’t mean we have time to be social with everyone. In my Slack community alone, there are 900 members; I can’t meet with them all. If the member number held steady (it grows every month), that would mean meeting 75 people a month for a year. Assuming each meeting averaged an hour (with some travel time, that’s a conservative estimate), that’s roughly two full 40-hour weeks just devoted to meeting each community member. If I used my Facebook or LinkedIn connections as a barometer instead, there goes my entire livelihood.
Still, I can play triage and make priorities based on factors like:
- How good a friend the person is, as opposed to ‘work friends’ or another designation.
- What their need is; if someone is going through a career change or has some major personal challenges, I want to find time for them.
- If this is actually transactional and can directly benefit one or both of us. Much of my professional life involves mixing business with pleasure, and much of time that someone reaches out to me, there’s a potential hook that could make it worth my while to benefit my clients.
- A rare opportunity, such as meeting someone briefly visiting from out of town who I haven’t seen in a while.
If none of these factors rank all that high and it doesn’t make sense to meet, there are still ways I can show an interest. Here are some ways I’m likely to respond when I can’t meet or chat, especially if they don’t have a time-sensitive request:
- “I’m juggling some major deadlines right now. Can we reconnect next month and see if the timing is better?”
- “This isn’t a fit for me. Let me introduce you to X who can help you with this.”
- “Finding time to talk or meet is so tough right now. Can you send me more info, and I’ll share any thoughts as soon as I can?”
- “I’m slammed right now, but let me post something in Slack [or, if more public, the newsletter], and I can see who bites.” [I will sometimes offer to share things in other communities I’m part of; my own is not always the most relevant.]
- “My schedule’s a mess right now. Are you around Wednesday after work? I’m co-hosting the monthly First Wednesday happy hour and would love to have you.” [I love having this event as my version of office hours.]
- “Let me give you a quick call on my way home if you’re around so I can hear more.” [I’m in Manhattan and walk almost everywhere, so no, I’m not a distracted driver.]
There’s one really simple way just to show an interest, and that’s responding at all. Saying anything is (usually) so much better than saying nothing.
Transactional meetings are usually necessary. If most of my time on the job isn’t spent doing activities that are revenue-generating in the short or mid-term for my clients or for me, it’s impossible to make a living. But then, if the only way to make a living is to devote every hour to the highest bidder, what are you living for?
As for Betty, she and I bonded in a way we couldn’t when she was my client, and I can’t wait to do business with her again. I’m pretty sure that one way or another, she’s on the verge of landing another career-defining role, and the door is now open to explore how we can collaborate when that happens.
To a fault, I think about long-term value way more than I should. Perhaps there should be a term for that: professional romanticism, where bonds between individuals create the inspiration that opens up new opportunities.
However you want to define it, it’s a privilege to get to connect with people on a human level. I selfishly believe that will help me to thrive and create more revenue for my clients and me. But it’s also the Golden Rule.
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