We could all use a little help sometimes. And we all know that the best way to get help is to ask.
Of course it’s important to ask the right person. When I managed an accounting firm I had people ask me questions about taxes. When I left there to manage a dental practice I had people ask me questions about root canals. Great examples of asking the wrong person -- because while I was a highly innovative and successful manager and marketer, I would have been a terrible tax accountant or dentist.
But more than asking the right person, it’s important to develop the right relationship with that person before, and after, you seek their help. Most of my clients are in the business of providing professional services, many of them in an advisory role. So they get asked for their time and expertise a lot. Of course, when you coach, speak or write for business publications as I do, you get asked for help in every way imaginable.
There’s really only one secret to getting people to help you – you have to help them feel good about helping you.
It really is that simple. We all make decisions based on what makes us feel good, or at least “less bad.” You might be able to get someone to help you by using guilt. If their guilt avoidance is high, helping you will feel less bad than feeling guilty for saying no. But that won’t work on everyone, and it won’t work on anyone for every long. Besides, it just isn’t nice and I’m betting you are a nice person.
So let’s look at three really basic ways to make people feel good about helping you so that they’ll choose to do it again and again.
1. Pay them.
Obvious but true. Most of us feel good about helping someone when we’re being compensated for our value. But that doesn’t have to mean pulling out the plastic or writing a check. Compensation comes in many forms. Some are material -- such as professional fees, buying lunch, sending a gift, or making a donation in their name to a charity you know they support -- but some are not. What do they need that isn’t material? Can you make an introduction or a referral? Can you give them a shout out for their help in an arena where their target audience is paying attention? Can you offer a direct trade for services, or at least return the favor?
Don’t wait until you’ve received the help to offer or even deliver “payment” either. Ask what you can do, what introductions you can make, or what barter arrangement would be mutually beneficial. And please, never assume that help should be free. You’re a professional too; I’m assuming you understand that one.
Keep in mind that for most professionals it isn’t the dollar value of what you offer, it’s the acknowledgement of their value. While I can certainly buy my own coffee there is a subtle difference between the email that asks, “Can we have a coffee sometime?” and the one that says, “I’d love the opportunity to buy you coffee and talk for half an hour.”
2. Make it easy for them.
You’ll notice in the example above the second hypothetical email did something besides offering to buy me coffee. It also spelled out that I was being asked for half an hour of my time. Even better would have been an option of meeting via phone or Skype. Or an offer to come to my office any time I could spare half an hour (bonus points for offering to bring my favorite coffee drink to my office.) Or at least a sentence that suggested meeting at my favorite coffee shop, or a coffee shop that is convenient for me.
If you are asking for help, with no transactional agreement for compensation, let them know you’re willing to be as flexible as they need you to be to make it as easy for them as it can be. If you demand that they help you on your terms, chances are they won’t do it, or if they do they won’t feel as good about it as they otherwise might, which means they probably won’t do it again.
3. Expect nothing, appreciate everything.
I’ve watched my emotional responses to requests for my professional time, and I’ve talked with many other professionals, and there is nothing that makes any of us less likely to feel good about helping someone than feeling like it’s a demand rather than a respectful request. If you come across as expecting they’ll be happy to help you, probably they won’t.
Finally, we all know the power of a sincere "thank you." Never forget to make it clear how much you appreciate even the smallest bit of assistance.
None of us can succeed without the help of advisors and mentors. But each of us can do our part, both in the asking and the giving, to be sure that the circle of entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs continues.