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Ready, Fire, Aim?

Trying to find a job is about selling yourself. But the best way to sell yourself is to focus on the needs of your target employer and explain how you can help

Warren, the sales manager at Company A, takes a call from Chris, the CEO, and boy, is Chris excited. "Warren! I've got a great sales lead!" says Chris. "You know that we've been wanting to get our products into XYZ Industries since forever, Warren? Well, I'm at a CEO luncheon over at the Hyatt right now, and the CEO of XYZ just said in his remarks that his company is on the hunt for a product like ours. We need to a get a proposal in there, pronto."

Warren tells Chris he's on it and dashes down the hall, looking for Wanda, the salesperson in the territory where XYZ company is located. "Look, Wanda, now is the time for us to go after XYZ Industries for a sale. Their CEO announced at a luncheon that they're looking for a product like ours. Chris was there, and he just called me. We've got to put a killer presentation together and get in there to see them."

"I'm way ahead of you, Warren," says Wanda. "I sent off a package to XYZ Industries this morning."

"Uh—you did?" asks Warren, slightly nervous. "What was in it?"

"Well, I've got a lot of information about our products, and an introductory letter talking about our company," answer Wanda.

"Is it customized for XYZ Industries?" Warren asks, a little more nervous. "What did you say about them?"

"About them?" asks Wanda. "I didn't talk about them. I talked about us."

"But our products do a lot of things," Warren explains. "Did you make a guess about what their specific need might be? What's in your letter that will compel them to read the materials you sent over, and call us in for a meeting?"

"Look, Warren, you worry too much," Wanda replies. "Our products are tremendous. XYZ already knows it needs a solution like ours. All they have to do is review what I've sent over and we'll get that call."

"But they don't know us from Adam," Warren protests. "Did you talk in your letter about the way their business has grown so quickly, and how our product above all our competitors would be perfect for their next stage of growth?"

"Oh, Warren," says Wanda, "I just sent them a standard package. Believe me, it'll do the trick."

It gets worse when Warren finds out that Wanda sent the package to the attention of the Purchasing Manager—no specific name—at the P.O. box XYZ shows on its Web site. Wanda's assurances that Company A's products are the best don't do much to make Warren optimistic.

And with good reason. Company A doesn't get the order, nor even a chance to show its stuff. Warren is annoyed, Wanda is philosophical, and Chris is fit to be tied. This kind of thing happens all the time; not just when people are selling products, but when people are selling themselves.

Wanda lost the sale because she blasted off a package full of information about the product, that is, about herself. Don't make that mistake when you're looking for a job. And it's an easy one to make, filling up a cover letter with glowing language about your own accomplishments, never giving a moment's thought to what the customer—the hiring manager—is hoping to hear. Your résumé won't get read if your cover letter doesn't sell the customer, and like Wanda's boilerplate "enclosed-please-find" letter, a generic cover letter simply won't cut it.

As a job seeker, you've got to start by identifying, as closely as you can, the customer's, that is, the employer's, need. You've got to review the employer's Web site and conduct enough online research to make an educated guess about the problem the company is trying to solve. No employer posts a job opening unless there's a problem that needs solving—whether it's customers waiting too long on hold, products taking too long to get out the door, or an inventory database beyond repair. What is that problem? Your research and your experience will give you the most likely answers. You must speak to that problem in your cover letter and describe your own ability to solve it . A boilerplate cover letter does you no good at all.

Wanda didn't even take the time—and it probably would have been just a few minutes—to learn the name of the Purchasing Manager at XYZ. In a job seeker's case, a few minutes of online research on Google (GOOG), LinkedIn, ZoomInfo and the company's own Web site should yield you the name and the title of a real person in the hiring department. You have a much better chance of your material not going to the Black Hole of Unacknowledged Résumés. Those few minutes are well spent. In fact, they're critical.

Don't make Wanda's mistakes when selling yourself. "Ready, Fire, Aim" is a bad strategy—whatever you're selling.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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