Email Friend or Foe – Chapters 1-3

Chapter 1

OK, buckle up for this one – certain to generate even more controversy than usual.

I’ll give you the bottom line first. This will either irritate the daylights out of you or it will keep you from wasting your time, money (especially the opportunity cost of stretching out your job hunt with useless or even harmful strategies) and your mental energy.

Emailing headhunters and CEOs on the first contact is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Use a printed letter with a First-Class stamp instead

Or, if you’ve decided to try an email strategy, make it a supplement to, not a replacement for your regular mailing strategy. Here’s the analysis. Marketing and sales executives will quickly relate to this; everyone else may need some time (and reassurance) to think about and process the strategy. Yes, we see/hear many search consultants express their preference for email on the first contact, but so what? The leap from their stated preference to deciding this is your best decision (what gets you considered most favorably, in other words) is emphatically not proved by results. In fact, my experience and sense of this is that exactly the opposite is true – email on the first contact makes it much easier for the headhunter to blow off the contact. and (the corollary), you are much more likely to get a telephone call if you send an attractive laser-printed letter through the U.S. mail than if you start with an email.

Wouldn’t it be great if the email strategy worked? We could avoid $thousands in mailing costs, time spent signing/folding/stuffing, favorable response would be instantaneous, you could be interviewing next week, etc.

Here’s what actually happens: Most don’t get read at all (What do you call unsolicited email? Answer: spam. What does a headhunter call spam? Answer: spam). If your letter gets read, your resume (a download attached file on most systems) probably doesn’t. If you’ve filled out a form, you may wind up in a database (better for your next campaign than this one. I’ll write about that in another column sometime). You may get some auto (unattended) replies (not very useful). Probably worst of all — if the firm is a major one, there’s a designated (low-ranking) person assigned to read this stuff; there’s too much volume to do anything else.

Now the “whys.” Put your marketing manager hat on. Since when did we make promotional decisions on what consumers say they want? (The focus group method of deciding consumer preferences has been pretty well debunked). Instead, the more revealing strategy of what consumers want is what they actually do. This is why test markets, laboratory stores, mall intercepts, coupon drops, and similar strategies (all action, not talk-based) have pretty well replaced focus groups as a means of testing/confirming consumer preferences. (Remember: Search consultant screening behavior is an analogue to consumer buying behavior).

Here’s a famous example. In the 1980s, several major supermarket chains (I believe A&P was the largest) clearly heard the stated consumer preference for level pricing (lower) all the time instead of traditional Wednesday in-store promotions. (The stated preferences came from extensive focus group interviewing). And, guess what happened? Consumers forgot about those stated preferences when aggressive promotions met level pricing. The level pricers lost a bundle in sales and marketshare to the promoters and level pricing was abandoned forever after those who tried it were taught the lesson.

I believe headhunter behavior clearly resembles consumer behavior here – what they say and what they do are frequently at odds. After (successfully) running several hundred senior executive campaigns over the past 25+ years, I have proven to my satisfaction that well-crafted (snail) mailings (aggressive promotions, in other words) clearly out-perform email strategies (level pricing).

If you’re planning one of those mass email campaigns, send me the $hundred instead. I’ll get you 50 Florida lottery tickets; we’ll both be better off.

First class mail beats email.

Chapter 2

Interesting feedback from the previous message — caused me to think more about several issues. This is important (your job campaign may be riding on it), so here’s Chapter 2 on the subject.

A dozen or so of my readers replied. About half of those were questions about how to reply to headhunter questions via email. This is an easy one – once you have a dialogue going with someone, you are no longer concerned about breaking through, which was the point of Chapter 1. Answer their questions and ask yours.

Here’s the interesting part. I got a long, whiney message (two full cycles on my voicemail) from an individual who identified himself as a “Chicago recruiter” who received a forwarded copy of the column. I won’t bore you with the details of the anonymous diatribe but he is representative of the toxic, damaging advice so prevalent among networking groups and outplacement firms. So, I’ll address his major points here:

Whiney Headhunter’s Point #1: Email is twice as effective as “snail” mail. He mentioned a “year-and-a-half” study of “hundreds of campaigns.”

WH’s Point #2: I should be more careful about dispensing harmful advice. Job hunters should follow the search firm’s advice.

Cole’s Response: What study? What did the executives send? How many headhunters did they contact? Which headhunters did they contact? Who were the executives?

WH’s lecture is bogus, defective, and harmful. I have some real (not imaginary, not passed along, not bogus, not wishful) personal statistics: Since January 1994 (when I started counting), I have conducted/assisted with 136 senior executive job campaigns as of June, 2010. Average compensation of this group (conservative value of new position obtained) = $323,760. Current marketshare statistics of how positions were obtained:

Networking – 37 jobs/27%
Third Parties – 53 jobs/40%
Direct Approaches to Appropriate Companies – 45 jobs/33%
Visible Posted Jobs (ads, Internet, etc.) – 1 job/<1%

(You don’t have to take my word for this; substantial reference list available on request. I stand behind my numbers.)

Since 1991, Irv Pfeiffer and I have taught several hundred (sorry, the actual number is lost) seminars to thousands of executives — in person, via telephone conference calls, and tapes. Mass emailing has been available for at least ten years. From our audience, number of senior executive positions reportedly obtained from mass email strategies – 0. (If you found a job this way or know someone who has, please illuminate me).

Now. Put your marketing manager hat back on (we did that yesterday). It makes no difference what this consumer (headhunter) says; what is important is what similar consumers (headhunters) do. Action trumps opinion. (Please review Chapter 1.)

Sorry to have to say this: Search consultant opinions are not very useful or helpful on the subject of senior executive job hunting, because they have difficulty separating their consuming persona from their advice-giving persona, just as all consumers do. Listen to what they say, but make your promotional decisions on what they do. Clear?

Sorry if this contradicts much of the advice you’ve been getting, so I’ll tone it down a bit to something everyone can live with: Go ahead with your emailing, but do it as a supplement to regular mail, not as a replacement.

Chapter 3

I’ve written a lot about senior executive job hunting but nothing I have ever written has created as much interest (and heated discussion) as my two previous chapters on email.

Reader reaction varies to my negative conclusions about email – everything across the scale from enthusiastic agreement to rejection approaching that of a vampire eyeballing a cross made out of garlic. Which are you? Here’s an independent, real time observation you might want to consider, regardless of which camp (email yes or no) you fall into —

I was speaking with a friend (and former individual client) last week who had been EVP of BBDO in Germany. I helped him with his job campaign; he moved to Boston as president of another agency. He later merged it into another agency and became VP Marketing at Fidelity Investments (yes, that Fidelity).

Anyway, he embraced the direct marketing strategy and actually teaches it to the executive job hunting group at his church. He mentioned to me a major advantage of the “snail” mail (as opposed to email) strategy I hadn’t considered. As recently as a year (or so) ago, he was getting several hundred pieces of hard copy mail per day and twenty or so emails. Now, the ratio is reversed – a handful of mail and hundreds of emails.

This gives the hard copy letter great contrast and a major advantage over email. Instead of being tucked in among the insurance, viagra, and home equity loan messages, your high-emotional content, laser-printed, hand-signed, senior executive letter stands out like a shooting star.

Remember: Email (almost free) on the initial contact (CEO or headhunter) is worth slightly less than it costs (so, email is essentially worthless). First class mail letters might appear expensive, but they are incredibly cheap when compared to the real cost of unemployment – the $10, $20, $30 thousand opportunity cost per month (or more) of not having a job. I encounter many executives who unsuccessfully looked for a new position for 6 months, 8 months, a year (or more) to save a $few thousand in mailing expense. You?