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On Speculative Applications

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There was a time when banging out speculative applications was flavor of the month. Nowadays outplacement arms are considerably less keen on getting candidates to spray letters and calls around like slurry from a muck spreader. To be charitable, this is not solely because of the impact on their postage, stationery and telephone bills. Most unsolicited sales approaches get the same treatment that we all give to the unending stream of paper that comes through our letter boxes at home -it gets junked.

But, you may ask, does this matter so long as the odd one gets a response? After all, you do only need one job, don't you?

The answer is that it all depends, and what it depends on is:

o what you mean by speculative applications;

# how you go about applying on spec;

o the kind of job you are looking for;

# what else you have got to do with your time.

Shotgun or Rifle?

There are two forms of communication you can use for speculative applications - letters and telephone calls. There are also two ways you can approach this method of generating job leads.

Looking first at mail shots, you can either bulk mail a standard letter to a large number of people or you can send individualized letters to a much smaller number of carefully targeted individuals. Few people would argue about the effectiveness of the second method, the rifle shot: a sniper hits the target a high proportion of the time. The value of the shotgun is more questionable.

To be fair, some people do get Jobs as a result of bulk mailings. So, too, do some people win the Jackpot on the National Lottery. The odds against a mail shot producing a job may not be as long as those against winning the Lottery, but nor are they as short as the oft quoted figures for junk mail of around a 2 per cent return. To be sure, you will get a fair number of replies; considerably more than 2 per cent, in fact. Unlike private individuals, who simply bin junk mail, many business organizations have a policy of responding to unsolicited letters, at least when they come from people seeking a job. What lands on your mat 99 times out of 100, however, is likely to be no more than a standard letter with a 'thank you but no thank you' punch line.

If it takes 100 letters to produce a single meeting (which it easily can), and between 10 and 20 meetings to generate a single job offer - which may not be one you actually want - you can begin to get some idea of the effectiveness of untargeted bulk mailings. Now give a little thought to the time and cost involved, the time it takes to get hold of that many company names and addresses, to key them into your word processor, to print the letters and to fold them, and put them into envelopes; the cost of paper, envelopes and stamps, plus - if you are using bubble jet or laser - the actual printing.

That, however, is not all. If mail shots are to be anything but a complete hit and miss method of generating leads, every letter you send out needs to be followed up with a telephone call. There is no point in just sitting there waiting for the recipients to get back to you. But how can you possibly follow up efficiently if you are sending out 100 letters at a time?

Cold Calling

Of course, another question which may be raised by that last paragraph is, 'Why bother with the letter at all? Why not just get straight on to the phone?'

At first sight, this may sound attractive. You will be talking to people, which is more stimulating than the low grade clerical work of keyboard bashing, printer operation and envelope stuffing. Instead of having to just sit around waiting and hoping after a batch of letters has gone out, you will be getting an immediate *yes' or 'no' - you will be in control. Most important of all, on the phone you can make a personal impact in a way which it is difficult to achieve with a letter.

Unfortunately it is not quite like that in practice. Cold calling in volume presents as many problems as sending out bulk mail shots. For example:
  • it is expensive;

  • it is fatiguing;

  • you need a hide like a rhinoceros to cope with the high percentage of rejections;

  • more often than not, you do not even get past the gatekeeper. Busy managers get so many unsolicited calls, from people selling everything from advertising space to life insurance, that the only way to protect their valuable time is to block out all of them, including people trying to find a Job.
How Many Hours in a Day?

Perhaps the best way of putting the whole thing into perspective is to look at the way you break down the time available to you. If you are unemployed and spending five days a week job hunting, you should be spending three days a week networking and a day on advertised vacancies. That leaves just one day a week to deal with headhunters and agencies, speculative applications and any other hidden approaches. Those few hours must surely be spent more productively by using your rifle than by blasting away with your shotgun.

For those who are either in a permanent, full-time job, or doing temporary or part-time work, the conclusion is even clearer.

The only qualification to what has just been said is that some job hunters can Justify spending a greater amount of time on speculative applications, well targeted ones that is, than others. What determines this is the kind of job you are looking for and, in particular, the number of such jobs which exist in any one organization.

If you contact a company and ask if they have a requirement for a managing director, or even for a head of function, such as director of finance, production or sales, your hit rate is likely to be miserably low. On the other hand, if you want a job as a salesperson, and approach companies with large sales forces, you stand quite a reasonable chance. It is all a matter of assessing the likelihood of there being a vacancy of the kind you are seeking.

Take the case of Joanne. A human resources professional, she wanted to go into management consultancy. Her research produced a list of 13 consultancies which either specialized solely in HR, or employed a number of HR consultants, and which also met her other criteria. She was able to network into four of them and this produced one interview with a firm which definitely had a current requirement. She made speculative applications to the other nine, being careful to identify, and apply directly to, the decision makers in each case, and this again produced one interview for a specific job. As it happens, it was the firm she approached on spec which she preferred. They offered her a job and she accepted. The whole process took only a few weeks from start to finish.

Rifle Practice

Joanne hit the bull's eye. How did she do it?

As her story demonstrates, the preliminary - but vital - stages of the process of making speculative applications are the same as those for networking. If you do not target yourself accurately, and if you do not conduct your research conscientiously, then you might just as well be banging away with that old shotgun.

What is more, when you have done your targeting and your research, you always try to network into a target organization if you possibly can. It is only when you cannot network your way in that you try a speculative application - and that is when you have to start adapting the techniques you employ.

The normal networking process is to make a telephone call, where necessary using the name of the person who gave you the referral in order to get past the gatekeeper, and to ask for a meeting. The most effective way to make a speculative application is to start by sending a letter, and then follow this up with a telephone call, using different techniques to get past the gatekeeper. Again, the objective is, of course, a meeting.

The rationale behind this different approach is based on the fact that, when you network, you stand a good chance of getting a meeting simply by mentioning the name of the person who referred you. When you apply on spec, on the other hand, you have to sell yourself from cold. Generally speaking, you stand a better chance of doing this with a carefully prepared letter which the recipient may find a quiet moment to read with at least a moderate degree of attention, than by trying to get the same selling points across when you ring out of the blue, at what may well be a less than totally convenient time, and have to deliver a make or break sales pitch.

The letter you send should ideally fit on to a single page of typed A4 and must be addressed to a named individual, never to a job title. The first paragraph should say who you are, the reason for your letter and why it might be of interest to the reader.

It is important to grab the recipient's attention and interest within the first two or three sentences, but do not try to do this by means of gimmicks. Most of them have been tried before and the vast majority only cheapens an application. The only way to ensure that someone will want to read on is to show them that there is something in it for them, which in the case of a spec letter means targeting yourself accurately at an organization with a problem or need to which you are the ideal answer. In this way you will also avoid the pitfall of giving your letter the appearance of being part of a bulk mail out.

Beware, too, of copying samples of letters taken from American job hunting literature. All too often sounding like the kind of over familiar 'personalized' junk mail which tells you that you have got into the final round of a prize draw you have never even heard of, most of these gauche examples of ham-fisted sales literature are totally unsuitable for the British audience. Your objective is not to make the recipient cringe!

In case you are wondering whether you ask for advice or for a job, the answer is that you do neither - at least, not in so many words. Indicate that you would like to know whether the company could benefit from your talents, but do not beg for a job. Use phrases like 'seeking a new challenge', 'desire to develop my career in a sector offering greater prospects' or 'seek an opportunity in an organization where my experience will enable me to make an impact on the bottom line'.

The main body of the letter should demonstrate clearly and forcibly exactly what it is that you have to offer. It is, in effect, a potted CV - or, more accurately, a few carefully selected extracts from your CV. Enclose your full CV as well if it definitely strengthens your application, but do not be afraid to omit it if it does not.

You end the letter by saying that you will telephone in a few days' time to see if a meeting can be arranged.

When you actually make that call, you will become all too aware of another difference between networking and applying on spec. In networking mode, whether you are calling someone you already know, or using the name of a person who gave you a referral as a door opener to someone whom you have never met, you normally get through to your target without too much trouble. Not so when you call on spec. Then you have to get past the gatekeeper.

Slaying the Dragon

Put yourself on the other side of the fence for a moment. Consider all those times when you have picked up the phone only to have your ear pinned back by someone who subjected you to a solid ten minutes of hard selling before you could even get a word in. Or those calls from smoothies who introduced themselves as financial advisers but were in fact commission-only life insurance salespeople.

What did you do? If you valued your time, you got your gatekeeper to block all calls from people who were not either already known to you or who refused to state openly the nature of their business.

In small companies the switchboard operator may be the gatekeeper. More frequently, however, you get past the telephonist with no problem but hit a brick wall when you get to your target's secretary. Either way, you can bet your boots they are dab hands at getting rid of unwanted callers - fast.

So, what do you do? While there is no magic wand which will work absolutely every time, there are a number of techniques which will vastly improve your chances of success.

Even dragons have feelings. Avoid treating gatekeepers as 'non-people' in your eagerness to get through to your target. Aim for a balance between being businesslike and friendly. When a telephonist puts you through to a secretary, ask for the secretary's name, so that you can personalize your call.
  • Fight shy of open challenges to the gatekeeper's authority. Remember where the power lies.

  • Refrain from deceit, e.g. pretending to be someone you are not. More often than not, such deception rebounds on you.

  • Show courtesy and respect, but do not grovel. Sound as though you expect to be put through, otherwise the doubt in your voice will be picked up by the gatekeeper.

  • Use your target's first name, rather than a courtesy title, e.g. Geoff Smith rather than Mr Smith. You can get this information either from literature such as a company report or from the call you made to the switchboard before sending your letter. (You did call to check that Geoff Smith is still with the company and that his correct title is chief executive, didn't you?) Beware, by the way, of abbreviations. Not every Anthony is known as Tony. This is something else you can check when you ring the telephonist before dispatching your letter.

  • Say you are calling from another country. International calls often get put through on the assumption that they must be important. If, however, your target is genuinely not there or is in a meeting, you will have to fend off the 'Can he call you back' line with an excuse (such as that you are just about to leave and will not be contactable for a while) and ask when would it be convenient for you to call back.

  • If, in spite of all your efforts, you get blocked by the sadistic kind of gatekeeper who obviously enjoys eating unwelcome callers for breakfast, try calling when the dragon is unlikely to be there but your target might be: before or after normal office hours, or at lunchtime.
In addition to these techniques, you will need to know how to handle one or two questions that you will frequently be asked, such as:
  • What do you wish to speak to Mr Smith about? Do not say you are looking for a job. Refer to your recent correspondence with Geoff Smith and say that you are calling, as promised, to follow up on that.

  • And the name of your company is? If you are still employed, or have only recently left your last company, give that name.
If you have been doing some work on a self-employed basis, you could say you run your own company. Do not say that it is 'personal'. That smacks of insurance salespeople and job hunters. If you have no other alternative, say that the recent correspondence you had with Geoff was in your private, rather than corporate, capacity. " He's in a meeting, can I ask him to call you back?" If you say 'Yes', you lose control - there is a fair chance that he won't ring you. Explain that you are going to be difficult to reach (in meetings, travelling etc.) and ask when he is likely to be available to take your call.

Finally, although both telephonists and secretaries can be equally efficient gatekeepers, do remember that secretaries have a far more intimate knowledge of their boss's business and social contacts than the person on the switchboard. Even when you are networking, and using the name of a valid door opener, they can give you a grilling. When making a speculative approach you therefore need to be very careful not to get trapped into revealing that you actually know your target somewhat less well than you are trying to imply. The moral here is 'the less said, the better'.

Through at Last

To a large extent, the same applies when you finally do get past the gatekeeper and manage to speak to your target. Senior executives are busy people. Never waste their time.

You should, of course, have prepared yourself thoroughly for the call. The letter you sent a few days ago will have identified a reason why the company might be interested in you. You may have referred to a recent news item about the organization or you may simply have emphasized the depth of your experience in their sector. Have a two or three-sentence summary of this ready to deliver as soon as you have given your name and mentioned that you recently wrote in.

But are you not repeating yourself? Will your target not already be familiar with what the letter said? Sadly not. If you really had hit gold, the company would already have been in touch with you. The chances are that your missive is either sitting in the non-urgent tray awaiting a standard response or that it has been passed on to some other department, like personnel.

So, make a strong impression with your concise summary of what the letter said, and then ask if you might arrange to pop in for a brief meeting. You will only succeed in getting a meeting in a minority of cases, but the better your targeting and your preparation, the larger that minority will be.

And when you do not succeed in achieving your first objective? Then switch to your second one. Ask for the names of any other individuals, either within the same organization or in other companies, who may be able to help you. A busy manager may well give you one or two in order to get rid of you.

Finally, always thank people for their time and assistance. It never does any harm and it could do some positive good. You may need to speak to the same person again at some point in the future.

"It is not just what you read, but the way that you read it."
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