Pete Huang


How to ask people for help

As I get more time to carve out a proper operations function for our sales and customer success teams, I sort of realized that I didn’t really have a good grasp on what sales operations actually is and how to build out the function.

Accordingly, I set out to conduct a series of informational interviews with people who’ve worked on sales operations for a few years and have done what I’m setting out to do.

I’m grateful that nearly every person that I cold messaged agreed to spend some time with me to share their experiences, thoughts on the topic, and advice for me in my situation.

This topic has been hammered to death over and over, but I wanted to document my thoughts on the best way to ask for advice from people you don’t know, especially since I felt like it was a fundamentally different method than what I had gone through in college for consulting recruiting.

Tell them who you are as quickly as possible

As a courtesy and to get attention, compose a short snippet that summarizes who you are. One sentence maximum.

A common mistake is to introduce yourself in a way that matches with how you think about who you are. What’s better is to use a framing that matches with how the other person will think about and remember you.

Before:

My name’s Seth, and I’m a junior at UC Berkeley.

After (to someone like me):

My name’s Seth - I’m interviewing for [x role] at Airtable on Friday.

Before:

My name’s Pete. I work on Customer Engagement Operations at Airtable.

After (to someone outside of Airtable):

My name’s Pete - I’m building out sales & customer success ops at Airtable.

Hell, if you’re really gunning for their attention, you could namedrop like crazy using the terms that you want them to remember you by. I did this when I cold emailed for my current job:

Subject line: Northwestern + Palantir + McKinsey = your next CSM?

Give people a good reason to help you

One of the common maxims that people come across with “networking” is to try and make it a two-way relationship: give as much as you get.

Commonly overlooked is the fact that most people are actually looking to help as much as they can, and not just to people who are providing help in return. One thing that is always, always in your control is the ability to give someone the opportunity to help a self-aware, thoughtful person.

In other words, make it super clear how this conversation will be a good use of their time.

That’s why I really like it when people demonstrate that they’ve put a lot of thought into why they’re reaching out and that they’re not doing it just because they heard it was good to “network”.

Something like this snippet makes me feel really optimistic about chatting:

I’m currently a consultant at Accenture and I’m interested in exploring startups, but I’m unclear about what specific value someone from my background would bring to a small team. I saw that you had made a similar transition, and I’d love to get your advice on how to frame my value during the search process.

I know for sure that by the end of that conversation, I will have helped move that person into a position that’s better than where they were before we connected.

Make it easy to say yes

Figuring out the details of this conversation is by far the least valuable and most annoying piece of this interaction. Getting caught in scheduling tag (“Hey does Friday work?” “No, how about Tuesday?” “No, sorry. How about Wednesday?”, etc.) is deeply frustrating and each exchange makes me more likely to want to forget about it.

But if you could lay out:

  • When we’re going to chat
  • How long we’re going to chat for
  • Where we’re going to meet
  • How I can confirm that these details work

All I have to do is say yes in the format that you’ve requested.

To close out your message, try something like this:

Would you have 30-45 minutes to chat over Zoom the next few weeks? Maybe next Tuesday or Wednesday at 2pm PT? Let me know if either time works, along with an email to send a calendar invite to. Would appreciate any time, guidance, or pointers to other contacts if you’re not available.

Another version:

Would you have 30-45 minutes to meet any afternoon this coming week? Happy to come to your office for convenience. I can send an invite if you’d like one. Thanks in advance!

And for goodness’ sake, make it a question! Without a question, I have nothing to respond to! Like this:

Hi Pete. My name is [x]. I’m looking to get your perspective on the goat farm industry.

Great! Happy to help. But how? Are you looking for an email, a phone call? Do I call you? How long will we chat for? Am I inadvertently signing up for a 2 hour conversation?

I’m unfortunately not going to spend the mental energy to figure that out for you. That work is on your shoulders.

Asking is easier with empathy

Anytime you ask someone for something - a favor, outbound prospecting, advice - you’ll have a much better time with it if you spend a few moments thinking not about what you’re sending, but what the other person is going to receive.

What would you want to see? What would make it easy for you to say yes to that ask?

Then, do that.