How to reach out to a really old contact — and make a positive impression
According to Statista.com, 87% of LinkedIn users have over 101 connections, and one-quarter of all users have between 500 and 999 connections.
That may seem like plenty of people to have in your network. But connecting online means all kinds of caveats, such as accepting requests from strangers. Moreover, even if you knew all 100, or 500, or even 900 people at one point, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to stay in touch with everyone.
It’s more realistic to think about the general types of people you need in your network and then remain in contact with a few in each group: some people on your holiday card list, some you see at industry events, some you go to for advice. Then accept that the rest, one year grew to two years and two years grew to five (or more).
But now, suddenly, that person you knew way back when is relevant. Maybe a classmate you haven’t seen since graduation works at your dream company.
Maybe your first boss is the best person to ask about a work dilemma or possibly, someone you interned with is your only contact in a new city. You can (and should) reach out to these old connections — rather than start from scratch — just go about it the right way.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Don’t undersell (or oversell) your connection
I’ve found that I can experience a kind of impostor syndrome when reaching out to contacts I knew, but wasn’t particularly close with.
For example, during a recent work trip I contacted my friend’s childhood best friend (who I’d seen at dozens of birthday parties and happy hours over the course of my early twenties); I started my email with “I’m not sure if you remember me…” Unsurprisingly, she wrote back, “Of course I remember you!”
Keep in mind: Even if you’ve met someone previously, an email is a first impression for this stage of your relationship. When you start by suggesting you really weren’t that close, you’re telling the other person that you categorise him or her distantly.
There’s an arm’s length quality about it, something that may make an ask — like meeting for coffee or hopping on a call — seem like a lot, for someone “you may not even remember.”
However,the other extreme — pretending you were once much closer than you were — can also be off-putting.
The other extreme — pretending you were once much closer than you were — can also be off-putting. If you were one of dozens of interns in a large office, it’s unrealistic to think someone you met a couple of times will instantly know who you are. Opening your email in a way that’s too familiar (asking how their loved ones are, for example) feels contrived.
So, aim to strike a balance. Remind them how you know each other in a friendly way without overdoing it, by saying something like, “I interned at ABC company in 2009 and remember the presentation you gave on X,” or “I know it’s been some time since 11th grade history with Mr. Smith.” Starting your email with a line like this will encourage him or her to keep reading.
2. Mind your (networking) manners
Once you establish how you know each other, you may not be sure how to proceed next. Should you spend time reconnecting? Should you dive right into what you need?
The best approach is to treat the other person with the same consideration you’d give any networking contact.
First, you want to be respectful of his or her time. If you send a note “just saying ‘hi,’” and then another “inquiring about a time to chat,’” he or she will have no idea why you’re reaching out. She may not have time to reconnect in general or she may fear that you have a really big ask (like a request to be hired on the spot) and that’s why you’re burying your lead.
Save the other person this confusion and mention why you’re reaching in your first email. After re-introducing yourself, get to the point. You could say, “I just moved and I’d love to discuss the local business scene,” or “I see you work at ABC company, and if you have time to answer a few questions — over phone or email — I’d love to hear about your experience working there.”
Additionally, always offer to return the favour. As Jodi Glickman writes in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “You’re much more likely to get a response when you think about a two-way benefit and not just how you can take advantage of the other person’s expertise or connections.”
Yes, it can be awkward to reach out to someone if you haven’t been in touch for some time. But so long as you send a professional email, you’re still making a positive impression (even if the person doesn’t have the ability to reconnect at that time).
And who knows, you just could find that the person you most needed in your network was there all along, and is happy to help.
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