How often have you been invited to a coffee meeting that turned into a frightening one-sided sales pitch? If your answer is “even once was too many” then read on:
The scene opened on a pleasant and cheery day. Your new connection seemed to start on a good foot and they invited you to meet for coffee to get better acquainted on each other’s businesses. You thought, “Hey, this seems like a nice person! I’d enjoy getting to know them and to explore possibilities for how we might be able to help each other.” You set a time, drove across town, shelled out for a Latte and exchanged pleasantries. But then… the skies darkened and the mood changed (cue the creepy music).
The person who seemed like someone you’d like to get to know suddenly didn’t feel so friendly anymore. You didn’t want to be rude but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. They asked very few questions about you and only when it fit into their pitch. (Worse yet, was if you thought you were getting together to talk about a certain aspect of their business but then they started pushing something completely out of left field—like getting salty licorice when you were expecting chocolate.) It quickly became apparent that the other person didn’t really care about what you do or how you could help each other in a mutually beneficial way. It felt like you’d been targeted and drawn in for the kill.
Unfortunately, this is a type of situation that gives networking a bad rap. The good news is you can save yourself from getting tricked into a sales trap by treating yourself to setting boundaries. How can you prevent yourself from opening the door to these scary scenarios?
Look through the peep-hole.
Short of shrieking, “Who are you really and what do you want?!” you can learn more before you agree to a coffee meeting. You don’t have to accept the invitation the moment you are asked. Buy yourself some time by asking them to follow up with an email invitation. If you have a good feeling there could be value in meeting with this person, do a little research. Google their business and reviews. Check out their LinkedIn profile (and if you like what you see, invite them to connect there). Ask questions and establish some expectations ahead of time by simply reiterating the intention of your meeting.
Arrange a quick phone or email exchange first to share basic details and to help you both determine whether it makes sense to meet further now or later in the future. It’s true that usually more magical possibilities happen when you meet in person. But magic happens a lot more when you are selective with whom and how you spend your time.
Turn the lights on.
By illuminating the intention of your meeting, everyone can see what’s out there and feel more comfortable stepping out to talk further. It’s likely you are both hopeful that referrals and perhaps even a sale could come from your connection. It could happen, however, think of it like this; you wouldn’t invite a trick-or-treater you just met into your home for dinner and you wouldn’t ask them to invite you to their home. It takes time to develop trust and to make sure it’s not a mask you are seeing but the real deal. Relationships and trust are two-sided and usually take time to develop before either party is ready to make referrals, collaborate or buy from each other.
Ask yourself if you like the treats they are offering.
I adore Steve Martin but if he was dressed up as a Wild and Crazy Guy and pushing jumbo bags of Pixie Stix, I’d be happy with saying “Well thanks for offering but I’ll need to decline.” (Truthfully, first I would probably gush about how much I admire his brilliance—but you get the point.) Even if someone is the greatest person in the world, it doesn’t mean you need what they’re selling or want to do business with them. By finding out more about what they do, you’ll have a better idea whether it matches with what interests you.
Put on your own superhero cape and save the day.
If things go awry, here are a couple of possible ways to redirect the conversation. These may be outside of your comfort zone. Adjust to what fits your personality and conversational style:
- “My apologies for interrupting. However, I need to keep an eye on the time and want to make sure we both have a chance to share about our businesses. If you could wrap it up in one sentence, what is the main thing you want me to walk away knowing about your business? I will then briefly share the key things I’d like you to know about my business and we can take it from there.”
- “Since we had planned to learn about each other’s work, allow me to tell you about what I do and then we can see if there is a mutually beneficial fit.”
Caveat: If it becomes apparent you no longer want to refer or do business with this person, it may be best to not extend the conversation and wrap up the conversation right there.
Plan your escape route.
Sometimes you need a backup plan. Excuse yourself to use the restroom and then return saying that you really need to be going (You don’t need to explain yourself. They have been disrespectful of your time.) Or keep it simple and say, “I’m sorry to interrupt but I need to get to my next commitment.” (Even if your next commitment is simply attending to your sanity.) Your departure might leave them wondering if you had eaten too much candy but these are quick exits for when you’re panicking about how you’ll get out the door.
The next time someone asks you to coffee, think about whether accepting a “get acquainted” meeting is really the best use of your time. There are plenty of times when meetings like this turn out successfully. However, the ones that don’t can become a vacuum on your time, energy and money. Know what your time is worth and then estimate whether you believe you’d find enough value in meeting (e.g. cross referrals, collaboration, idea-sharing, knowledge, motivation, support) to live up to that value. Be selective on who you invite in, have a plan and your networking will be less scary.
In what ways do you ensure sales masks are set aside for your “get acquainted” meetings?