Cold calling: how to break through the secretary

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We've all been there; having found the key person in the business to speak to about a possible job in your area of expertise, you fire up for a cold call in an attempt to sell yourself. Unfortunately, rather than the man himself, you end up having to try and persuade his PA you're worthy of his attentions.

For obvious reasons, both senior figures in recruitment and within the business are a) difficult to find and b) rather hard to get hold of. PAs will organise their diaries, but they'll also serve as a barrier to prevent any Tom, Dick or Harry bothering the boss.

So, how do you get through this?

Respect the power of the PA

Viewing the PA as a glorified secretary serving merely as an obstacle to the important business you have to discuss with their boss will get you nowhere.

"We train people to befriend personal assistants when cold calling," says Linda Jackson, City director at outplacement firm Fairplace. "They're not an answering machine - explain thoroughly the nature of call and why it is important, try and gain an idea of the person's availability and convince them to bring it to that person's attention."

One director of an investment banking search firm confirms the value of taking the friendly approach.

"Good old-fashioned honesty works well," he says (perhaps surprisingly). "One of our most successful guys plays the PA system well using natural camaraderie, taking them into confidence about the nature of the enquiry and reassuring them we're not up to no good."

Be authoritative

"Cold calling is nerve-racking, and the fact that you're essentially trying to sell yourself immediately puts you on the back foot," says Corinne Mills, MD of outplacement firm Personal Career Management . "But it's incredibly important to keep the tone of your voice authoritative, as though you have a right to speak to the person, rather than tentative as though the PA is doing you a favour."

Don't be overt about your job search

Yes, you are pitching for a job but coming out and saying this outright will set alarm bells ringing and probably scupper your chances of getting through. Be more creative.

"You need a unique angle," says Jackson. "Say you're looking at the strategy of the division, that you're wanting information about how it works, whether it's growing and look for a way to show how your skills can add value to the department. It's not about simply selling your CV."

Be tenacious

There's obviously a fine line between tenacity and harassment, so make sure you're determined, but targeted.

"Start by sending an e-mail and then following up on that," says Mills. "If this doesn't work, don't fall at the first hurdle. After three or four well-thought out calls, you're likely to be able to schedule a time with the person you want to get hold of."

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