A private investigator shares his tactics for cracking even the most difficult career connection.
This article first appeared on FastCompany.com.
Fourteen years ago when I was working in corporate America I began wooing “Big Firm,” a potential new client. I started with a cold-call letter I’d spent an embarrassing number of hours composing. It met with silence.
But like a teen boy crushing, I kept pursuing Big Firm for many awkward months, painstakingly crafting proposal after proposal. These earned me a series of thanks-but-no-thanks replies, each signed by the same guy. We’ll call him “John.”
I studied Big Firm and sussed out that John was a mid-level but well-connected player and, by all accounts, a rising star. I wrote to John directly. Another polite rebuff.
It was time to turn to the darker side of my skill set (I’ve been in intelligence investigations for 23 years).
I built a dossier. I learned everything I could about John. Hobbies, interests, associations, favorite bands. I discovered that he would be attending a conference in Chicago. I signed up.
On night two of the conference, John and I spotted each other’s name tags across a crowded bar.
Conversation ensued; drinks were shared. Later, John said, “Rework your proposal when you get home and resend it. I’d love to see how it changes after the conference.”
My pitch hadn’t changed, but our relationship had. He hired me for the work. Fifteen years later, the relationship is strong. John and I still share work and projects; we’ve also shared vacations and many, many more drinks together over the years.
The craft of building a network of clients and colleagues isn’t about casting a wide net. It’s about seeding real relationships. It requires time and calculation. It can even seem a bit creepy at times. Here are five tradecraft techniques I’ve learned as a private investigator that, used in good faith, might just help you land the next big client … and maybe even gain a lifelong friend.
1. Gathering Intelligence
When you’re planning to pitch your product or service to a new client, build a file on the company. Stalk them—gently. Scour the company website. Search for local and national news stories about the firm. Identify one person (the asset), preferably a sharp, hungry someone well short of the C-suite, but whose star is on the rise. Start with his bio, then dig deeper.
You can learn more than you think from Twitter and Instagram feeds: Think food porn and article postings don’t matter? Study those, and you learn what really matters to someone. Find out his favorite restaurants, books, and magazines, and you learn his culture.
2. Asset Recruitment
My grandfather used to say, “Shoot one quail at a time.” At networking events, don’t hand out 100 business cards, only to go back to your office and send out 100 form emails. You are a spy. You’re smarter than that.
Instead, network like a spy: Use that intelligence you’ve gathered to figure out how to fit into that person’s tribe. Don’t push it—first contact should feel natural and easy. Talk about things that interest you both. Don’t go overboard on this, but you can even dress the part a bit. In highlighting your commonalities, as Seth Godin puts it, you’re sending the message: “People like us do stuff like this.” In other words, “We ‘get’ each other.” That’ll keep your business card from landing in the generic stack.
True pros in the PI (and spy) world employ one technique to devastating effect: mirroring — the art of subtly imitating someone’s body language or facial expressions. Often, we do it unconsciously; it’s built into our neurons. It’s why yawns and laughter spread, and why babies mimic their parents’ grins.
Mirroring says, “People like us do stuff like this.”
Interviewers and interrogators use mirroring to establish rapport with suspects. And it can work the same for you: When you’re negotiating or pitching, try echoing your asset’s stance. If he starts to mirror yours back, it’s a good sign you’ve put him at ease.
Mirroring says, “People like us do stuff like this.” And it can work even when your asset, in many ways, isn’t really in your tribe at all.
4. Controlling Defensive Body Language
Traditional lie detection techniques are based on observing signs of stress. To appear more honest, control your stress indicators. If you’re nervous going into a meeting or a cocktail hour, you might be judged as less trustworthy.
Two things you can do to combat stress:
- Know your topic, and know it well.
- Assume a posture of confidence.
Dale Carnegie famously said, “If you want to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic.” Enthusiasm can not only camouflage anxiety; it can melt away stress. And your energy might just be contagious.
5. Interrogating Gently
As a PI, I can usually coax the truth out of a grudging witness. You, as a budding business spy, can pivot this technique toward filling those awkward silences at a stilted conference cocktail hour or board meeting.
If I do find myself at a networking event, I try to shoot one quail at a time. I scan the room for somebody who piques my curiosity. Maybe he dresses sharp. Maybe she’s the geeked-out one wearing an X-Files T-shirt under her blazer. Pick one person and make it your mission to find out something really interesting about them.
Stories lead to real conversation. Real conversation leads to connection.
A good interviewer knows the art of asking good questions. Instead of the old standards, like “What do you do?” try asking something unexpected, like: “Tell me why you love your job.” It might take your interviewee by surprise, but her answers will tell a story. Stories lead to real conversation. Real conversation leads to connection.
None of this works if employed simply as a tactic. You will come across as insincere if you don’t take a real personal interest in your “target.” At the end of the day, making a real human connection is worth more than simply gaining a new client. And when you can accomplish both, well … you’re a proper operative.
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