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Posted: June 30, 2009

Job seekers, look for the pain

Employers really don't care about job seekers or their dual-concentration MBAs

Liz Ryan

For many hours each day, I rewrite cover letters that begin "Please find my resume enclosed" or "I was intrigued by your posting for a marketing manager, because of my umpteen years of experience in snap, crackle and pop." On the phone, over email and face-to-face with groups and individuals, I make the case: Employers don't care about us, the job seekers. They are way, way more of us than there are of them. They aren't really tuned into our excitement about our dual-concentration MBA or our experience in diverse industries including pharma, apparel and distilled spirits.

You could say that they couldn't care less about these things - and who could blame them?

Employers are in touch with their business pain. That's the issue sitting at the top of the pre-frontal cortex, or whatever part of the brain registers (and agonizes over) whatever isn't going right in a business at a given point in time. People say to me "Employers place job ads when they don't have pain." I say "False." There is some kind of pain buried in a job opening, even if the company is thriving, growing, bursting at the seams. Ask any entrepreneur whether rapid growth brings pain with it. Growth has pain embedded in it (systems that can't support the business any longer, people whose skills aren't up to the increasing demands, unhappy customers, yada yada yada) and so does consolidation, and so does every other stage in a business's lifecycle. Pain-relievers get jobs, while people who use their precious resume and cover letter real estate to say "I am a skilled problem-solver with excellent interpersonal skills" get a boilerplate "No thanks" letter (and sometimes not even that).
 
I was happy to go to a sales training workshop the other day in Golden, led by guru sales trainer Garry Duncan of Leadership Connections. Every five minutes during Garry's talk, I nearly jumped out of my chair with excitement, because selling, I learned, relies on digging into a buyer's pain. It's the same way in a job hunt. Until we have a sense of the employer's pain, how can we write a compelling cover letter (let's drop that goofy cover letter label right now, and start calling it a pain letter) that talks about the likely source of pain and our answer to it?
 
In his presentation, Garry taught our group how to ask questions that get at the sales prospect's business pain and its consequences. He shared some fantastic tips for leaning about a buyer's pain, when the obvious and ham-handed "So, what keeps you up at night?" won't fit the bill. (You'll have to take the course, to learn the tips.) Job seekers say to me nearly every day, "But I don't get to interview the employer before I sent out my resume. How can I learn what the employer's pain is?"

Here are some tips for accomplishing that.
 
Start with the job ad itself. It's amazing how often the job ad tips the employer's hand and tells you right up front what the pain is. I saw a job ad for Cricket Wireless not long ago. Cricket is a no-contract wireless cell phone provider, with 27 million subscribers (I got that from the company's website). It's a tiny player trying to grow in an industry dominated by giants. The job ad was long, but in the third paragraph I spotted the pain point: It was right there in the job ad's use of the word "churn." What is churn? That's an annoying, expensive problem that rears its head when customers buy Cricket phones and don't keep them. Why should they keep them? There's no contract. Now we can write a cover letter that talks about churn - its impact, the costs associated with it and how to relieve the pain it causes. If we can do a better job of training Cricket salespeople to sell the ongoing service, rather than a phone to use and throw away, we're ahead of the pack. Can we get our abilities in this area across in a cover - that is, a pain - letter? Of course we can, if we orient our two or three paragraphs this way. If we'd rather blather on about our strategic bottom-line orientation, we can do that instead.
 
Another tip I learned from Garry's program is that selling doesn't have to be scary or off-putting, obnoxious or brash. Job seekers would do well to remember that sharing what we suspect, intuit or believe about an employer's business pain isn't overly forward. It's appropriate. When we write to say "I wouldn't be surprised if you've got a very specific type of Welsh dragon flying around your castle as we speak, and luckily I've slain that dragon before" our letter may be the most welcome thing a hiring manager reads that day. When we write "I bring a collaborative team approach to business problems" we're not putting our best foot forward and, in this job market, that's an expensive mistake to make.
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Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at liz@asklizryan.com or www.asklizryan.com.

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Readers Respond

Good tips...thanks for the insight in this tough work search By Joanne on 2009 07 01

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