In 2016, when I retired from speaking and traveling just about everywhere, I got involved with the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York. The society has been meeting regularly since 1785. They opened, and continue to operate, the second-oldest membership library in New York City.
They also opened one of the city’s first free schools in 1820, and in 1858, after New York City founded its public school system, the society converted its school into a mechanics institute. We’ve since offered tuition-free education to tens of thousands of women and men working in the trades. I’m currently the chair of that school.
Our two-year construction project management program always has many more applicants than we can accept, and each summer, I get to read the applicants’ essays on why they want to join this program. The thing that strikes me each year as I read these essays is that nearly everyone talks only about themselves. Rarely does an applicant say anything about what they would like to bring to the Mechanics Institute.
The writers are mostly about taking, not giving. They each want a free education, which is fine — that’s what we have to offer. They want to get a certificate upon graduation so they can move up within their company and make more money. There’s nothing wrong with that. They want to do better for their family. I get that. But I wonder how each is going to fit into that upcoming class. What will they bring to us?
I read each essay every summer and I look at the transcripts they have to include from the schools they’ve attended. I see everything from GEDs to PhDs. We’ve had medical doctors who have applied to the construction project management program. They tell me they’ve had enough of the medical world and want to be in construction. None gives reasons why, though, and that always makes me wonder.
Many of the applicants are immigrants who have advanced degrees from their countries of birth. Some are professional engineers; others are lawyers. It’s a fascinating mix, and our panel has to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Our goal is always to put together a vibrant class that can work together toward a common goal.
I always look for those rare applicants who tell me through their essays what they will bring to the Mechanics Institute. I look for the people who have done their research and who realize they are applying to a school that is a New York City institution that has been around since before the Civil War. I look for the people who tell me not only what’s in it for them, but what’s in it for us as a group. What skills and knowledge will this person bring? What will they leave behind to make all of us better? That’s what I want to know. What’s in it for me? The person who applies in that way always gets in.
And that got me thinking about you.
If you’re applying for a job, do you research the company and find out as much as you can about it before you show up for your interview? Do you spend time thinking about how you would best fit in with what the company does? What are their specialties? What are yours? Will it be a good marriage? Do you take the time to do that or do you just think about your needs and what’s in it for you?
I think you’d have a better chance of getting that job and growing with that company if you approached the process with that company in mind. Put their needs ahead of your needs for a moment and think about what’s in it for them if they hire you. What makes you special? How will you make them better than they already are? What will you bring?
The trades suffer from a lack of good applicants right now. This is the biggest problem we face as an industry. Some companies will hire anyone who shows up with a pulse and a tool bag. I know a contractor who once told me their company motto is, “We hire the unhirable.” Funny, right? The contractor told me that out of frustration. Everyone he hired was looking out only for himself. Most didn’t last very long. These are the times in which we live.
Imagine how you would shine if you approached that contractor with a what’s-in-it-for-them approach. They’d probably hug you and pay you better than you expected to be paid because you would be someone unique. You would be bringing real value to that company and they would understand that. You would do well.
And if you’re the owner of the company, or if you’re the salesperson for the company, you should be thinking the same way. You need business and you need that business to be profitable. There’s no question about that; so think about how you approach potential customers. You need them to buy from you. Nothing is going to happen until somebody buys something. But what’s going to make them buy? Do you think you need to have the cheapest price all the time? I don’t think so. Would those people buy a cheap parachute?
Suppose you start the sales conversation by talking about them. What are their needs? Put your needs on the back burner for a moment and just talk about them. Research them. Think about how much you appreciate it when a job applicant researches you and your company before applying for a job. Treat that potential customer the same way.
But how are you going to find out about them, you say? That’s easy; use social media. It’s astonishing what you can learn about someone within a few minutes by looking at them through Google, Facebook and all the other platforms out there. People spill more beans on social media than the night shift at Taco Bell.
It’s all out there waiting for you to look. Do your research before you meet them in person, and when you get to their house or their place of business, look around. Notice the photographs, awards and indications of their hobbies. That gives you talking points. Practice active listening, which means listening more than you talk. Pay close attention not only to what they’re saying but how they’re saying it.
And once you’ve done that, talk to them first about their needs. Oh, they just need a boiler, you say? But why do they need a boiler? Is it because the old one is broken? Are they looking for something more modern? Are they looking to switch fuels? Are they environmentalists?
Or how about this: Maybe there’s a religious reason why they need a new boiler. Don’t laugh. Years ago, a contractor told me he once changed a working boiler for a customer because the boiler had a swastika on its label. Surprised? Don’t be. Before the Nazis showed up, the swastika was an ancient symbol of well-being. I’ve owned old heating books from the 1920s that have that symbol printed on the binding.
People have good reasons for what they want, but the only way to learn those reasons is to ask questions and then to listen carefully to the answers.
Find ways to talk about what’s in it for them. It’s not just a boiler, a radiator, new pipes or controls. It’s what those things will do for the people who decide to have you install them. They’re not buying what the thing is; they’re buying what the thing does. Find out what they expect it to do and sell them that. Do this and they won’t be buying equipment — they’ll be buying you.
Each summer, I learn from reading those Mechanics Institutes applications. Nearly every applicant talks about themselves and all of these people are competitors to people just like themselves. The ones we favor immediately, though, are the ones who also tell us what they’re going to bring to the dance. They’re thinking not only of themselves. They’re thinking of us.
Be like that.