Communicating with contacts

Now you have identified or started building your network, the next step is to reach out to individuals or groups to find out about opportunities or get information to help you.

In many cases this is likely to be a three stage process:

  1. Reaching out to contacts
  2. Following up with successful contacts and arranging to discuss further.
  3. Having a conversation or a meeting.

First decide what you want to achieve from talking to a contact:

  • Advice on career paths
  • Advice on qualifications and getting experience
  • Information about wohat its like at the company they work at
  • Asking about opportunities

Where and how will you interact with them?

  • At a careers event, networking session or fair
  • Via LinkedIn
  • Online via other networking sites / social media or text based chat services such as Messenger or Whatsapp
  • Via Email
  • By Phone
  • Zoom / Teams/Skype /Google hangouts etc

Prepare some notes first about what you will say to your contacts.

Always be polite and treat any information given to you as valuable even if its not exactly what you hoped for.

  • Start with small requests first – information, advice, not necessarily a job (yet!). For international students, don’t discuss visas or sponsorship at this stage.
  • Start with warmer contacts (e.g. family, friends) first to build your confidence.
  • Be succinct – detailed questions can wait until you have their attention.
  • Anticipate the obstacles – perhaps they are too busy to give you what you asked for? Ask if there might be a better time – make sure you offer to fit round them.
  • Be reasonable in your request: Ask for an easily manageable amount of time – 20 minutes is often long enough to get some real value from a meeting but not too long to sound off-putting. Be flexible on timing, remember they may be offereing this meeting in their own time.

Approaching a contact in writing

A written approach or speculative letter is similar to a covering letter, and should outline a short summary of who you are and what you are doing currently (if they don’t already know), your future plans and make it clear why you are writing to them. Include any relevant experience, research etc you have already done related to your career/sector of interest. The less ‘warm’ your contact the more composed and formal your approach will need to be.

Some people can receive 100+ emails a day so an email from someone you don’t know can get overlooked. If you don’t get a response within a week or so, try a different approach – phone, or try a letter in the post. Receiving a real letter can be a novelty nowadays, so you may stand out. However, do give them your phone and email contact details, or even follow up with a phone call or email, where you can remind them of the letter.

Approaching a contact verbally

For verbal approaches, a technique worth practising is your ‘30 second CV’ or ‘elevator pitch’ – a short summary of who you are, what you have done so far (e.g. work experience, part-time work, researching careers) and what you are looking for their help with. You can make this much more informal for close contacts such as friends and family, but make sure you have something ready which you could say to a complete stranger. You never know when you might bump into someone unexpectedly, e.g. at a party or family gathering.

Example 30 second CV (including a reference to how the meeting came about):

“Hi, my name is Sam Routledge, I’m a final year Biology student at The University of Manchester. I recently finished a summer internship with Remtech Health Products over the summer and really enjoyed it, so I’m looking for a career in sales and marketing when I graduate. My uncle, David Routledge, mentioned that you work in sales: could you spare a few minutes to tell me about your job? I would really like to find out how you got into sales and how your career has developed.”

There are many videos on Youtube that show in more detail how 30 second CVs or elevator pitches work, and how you can practise. The more you practise – and do it, the easier it will get!

What if you don't get a reply?

It is likely that not everyone you approach will respond to you. Don’t take it personally if they dont reply, they may get many requests, be on leave or very busy. A 50% success rate for cold contacts would be fairly good!

Meeting a contact

Once your contact has agreed to a meeting whether online, by phone or in person:

  • Make a list of questions for your meeting/call covering the key points you wish to explore. Use open questions (who, where, what, when, why etc) rather than those with yes/no answers, to encourage the contact to provide more information.
  • Ask the most important questions first so you don’t run out of time.
  • Listen for useful information/advice which may take you away from your planned questions – don’t be afraid to venture ‘off-script’ as you could gain a valuable insight you hadn’t anticipated.
  • Where possible, focus on your contact's career, rather than your own ambitions (they may not feel qualified to give you personal advice). Their circumstances may be very different from yours, but you can still draw lessons from their experience of breaking into, or progressing in a career.
  • If appropriate: bring an up to date copy of your CV and ask for their feedback. Unless they ask for a copy, don't leave your CV with them, as you may wish to update it following the advice you gained, then send it to them after the meeting.
  • Be aware of the time, especially if your contact is at work, as they will have other commitments after your meeting.

Be aware that a conversation could turn into an interview if the person you are talking to is interested in you. So be prepared to talk about yourself, your skills, and your motivation and interest in this company / role.

How to handle asking for jobs/work experience:

Questions you could ask

The following questions are examples of possible topics for your discussion. It is unlikely you will be able to cover all of these in a 20 minute meeting, so tailor questions to suit the areas you wish to know most about. Ask important questions early on in the discussion so you don’t run out of time for them.

  • How would you describe your role and career path?
  • What led you to this type of work?
  • How did you get into your current role?
  • What skills do you feel are important in your work (soft skills, knowledge, technical, etc).
  • How do you see your career progressing (likely opportunities)?
  • What kind of skills and experience would I need to get an entry level role in the sector?
  • Is there anything critical missing from my experience? How could I fill any gaps?
  • How do people find work experience or jobs in your field?
  • How does your organisation fill jobs when they are vacant?
  • What’s your organisation like as an employer?
  • What are the best and worst things about your job?
  • What are the biggest challenges? The biggest challenges facing your organisation?
  • What are the rewards like? (don’t ask directly about salary/your contact’s salary as that could be considered rude).
  • What is a typical day/week like? Working hours? Work life balance?

At the end of the meeting

Ask if there is anyone else they could recommend who you should talk to. If they give you a couple of names, make sure you follow them up. They will probably ask these contacts if you ever got in touch with them. If you haven't, it looks like you're not very interested or that you didn't value their advice.

Thank them for their time and aim to keep things open, e.g. “If any other questions occur to me, do you mind if I get in touch?”

After the meeting

You will need to gauge how your conversation went and what is appropriate. You could:

  • Follow up with a thank you letter or email, and in approprate enclose an amended CV just for information. This shows you have taken their advice on board and they now have an updated, targeted copy of your CV for future reference.
  • In your thank you letter or email, you can add the comment: 'If you hear of any jobs coming up in this field, I would be grateful if you could let me know'.