The Ethical Move
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The Ethical Move

When a virtual coffee turns into your worst business nightmare.

Photo by Fernanda Tadini on Unsplash

“It would be great to connect up”

What does that mean?

To me, it means let’s get together and find out more about each other; what we do for work, how we help people, and what (or who) we might have in common.

But one of the things I’ve learned starting my own business is that what it means for me is not necessarily what it means to everyone.

Here’s when I learnt this lesson.

I had been invited to connect up and so here I was on a Zoom call with fellow business owner, we’ll call them Alex, who I had met once before in a larger networking group. The conversation started well enough, the usual formalities you’d expect from virtual strangers, “How’s your week been” and “what is it you do again?” But as the conversation progressed I started to feel a bit uncomfortable, the questions were leading and I felt like I was under scrutiny. It was a similar feeling to be in a not-very-good interview.

When Alex asked me ‘so how is business?’ I was honest, halfway through my first year my personal circumstances had changed and I was wondering if I might have to go back to employment. I explained this looking for some connection, some empathy perhaps but the response I received started with ‘you know what you should do’ — my least favourite start to a sentence EVER. Alex had some advice for me,

‘What you don’t want to do (watch the hackles on the back of my neck rise) is waste your time and energy in a minimum wage job that takes you away from growing your business. What you want is to do something profitable on the side that complements your business — what is it you do again? “

The advice continued and it just so happened to coincide with an ‘opportunity’ they could provide me with, which was (you’ve guessed it) in their very own sales team. No wonder I had felt like I was being interviewed — I was, for their business and product.

But advice wasn’t all Alex had to offer, next came the presentation, ‘let me show you something that I think you’d be interested in’. I smiled weakly, nodded dumbly and mentally kicked myself, wondering all the time if Zoom came with an emergency abort button. This had now become my worst nightmare, I hate it when people try to sell me something I haven’t asked for. I was trying to remain professional but I felt like I had been duped.

When I’m at home I give cold callers a firm but polite ‘thanks but seriously no thanks’ approach, but how did you do that on a business network call? I felt stupid and angry and as Alex worked their way through the presentation I nodded and pretended to listen whilst taking a moment to be mindful and regain composure.

With the presentation concluded Alex asked me what I thought. I said I wasn’t interested in selling the product, I had no use or experience in using it and it wasn’t something I would consider purchasing. For a moment Alex looked disappointed but then they had an idea, ‘I’ll invite you on to my Facebook group and then you can get an idea of how useful it is and meet other likeminded people. There, done!’ Alex looked pleased and then remembering their manners said ‘is there anything I can help you with today?’ followed by ‘what is it you do again?’.

After the meeting had finally ended I felt awful, if this was the way everyone networked then I was going to be a lonely business owner. I was already dreading the next time I would see Alex’s Zoom square pop at the monthly local network meeting.

But, although I felt icky at the time, I am in fact now immensely grateful for meeting Alex as they did me the biggest favour. I decided there and then that I never wanted to make anyone feel the way I had felt during a network call, or a sales call or in fact any human interaction. I never wanted someone to say yes to me because they felt uncomfortable and awkward and backed into a corner. I wanted to show up at meetings and in my business with my attention focused firmly on the person in front of me, not what I could get out of them.

This experience has set the tone for all my future networking and client interaction. When I offer up the opportunity for Virtual Coffee Call with me the ball is firmly in your court from the beginning. You get to choose the time and date that suits you best from my online calendar. When you book there is a place to add what you want to talk about and every call comes with a sales pitch free promise.

The business owners that meet up with me tell me that this pitch-free promise is one of the main reasons they signed up, it’s a great point to use as an ice breaker and our conversation is rich and interesting, and engaging. I’ve learnt that some people want to chat more generally about the challenges of self-employment, some want help to get unstuck and some want to space to talk through their ideas. I love showing up to these meetings with an open heart and mind and engaging with who is right in front of me. It’s exactly how I want my business to feel.

Writing this article has given me the opportunity to think about my experience with ‘Alex’ all over again. I wondered what I might do differently this time around. If you are reading this hoping to make your networking experiences more fulfilling and meaningful and less Alex-like it might help to check in with the following:

Why are you turning up for this meeting? — be clear about what the meeting is for and communicate this clearly to your networking date. You can make sure you are both on the same page and you also get to make best use of your time and energy.

Are you walking the walk or talking the talk? — avoid giving advice and instead speak from your own experience about what has worked, or not worked for you.

Have you been invited? — don’t spring a sales pitch on someone unless they have asked for it, or that is the purpose of your meeting of course.

Are you listening? — check in with your network date’s body language and facial expression in combination with what they are actually saying. If they are feeling uncomfortable or unsure it may be harder for them to say no or respond as they wish. It’s your responsibility to check in with this.

If you are interested in how I do it then check out my online calendar. Feel free to take the idea and make it your own. Alternatively you can experience it real time and book a Virtual Coffee call with me, I take my coffee black with a big slice of homemade cake.

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