A reader dreads having to write a cover letter for an employer, and asks what to do in the October 20, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.
I hate cover letters. I don’t know how to write a decent one, all the online help I’ve seen is banal garbage, and frankly I’d rather chew on broken glass than go through the agony of trying to think up a bunch of “toot-your-own-horn” baloney to spit out in a cover letter. But in the process of applying for jobs, oftentimes a cover letter is required. Any suggestions?
A sales manager I know forbids his sales team from responding to requests for quotation (RFPs). “If all you’re doing is sending out prices for our products, you have no idea what the customer’s problem is, where it hurts. You can’t win by sending out RFPs and playing How-Low-Can-You-Go?”
Likewise, when applying for a job, you can’t win by sending out resumes and cover letters, then expect the employer to figure out whether to interview you or some of the other 2,000 applicants.
What’s better than a cover letter?
Once you hand over your resume or cover letter, you are out of the picture. You cannot defend your cover letter while HR and the hiring manager read it. You cannot assess what the manager really wants and needs — the job description is not enough. When you submit your cover letter, what you’re saying to that employer is, “Here. Read this. Then figure out what to do with me.” Employers stink at that!
Avoid confusing the employer with your entire kitchen sink of credentials and experiences even if they ask for it! To get in the door, you must offer just the two or three skills (from your huge arsenal) that will address the manager’s specific problems — “where it hurts.”
It’s an offer that no other job candidate will make.
Make this offer
Don’t spend hours “crafting” a cover letter based on guesses about what might impress the employer. Instead, offer 10 minutes of your time. Ask the manager to tell you “where it hurts.” Then deliver — yes, on the fly — three ways you can make it better.
“As a rule, I do not submit cover letters because they are a one-way recitation about me. To help you, I need to know a bit more than what’s in the job description — about the problems and challenges you need your new hire to tackle. I’d be happy to invest in a 10-minute call to discuss this. Based on a preliminary study of your business, and on what you tell me during our call, I believe there may be at least three things I can bring to the job that would materially affect the success of your operation. If I can’t demonstrate that during our brief talk, then you should of course not hire me, or even do a full interview. Would you like to schedule 10 minutes to roll up our sleeves and talk shop?”
Is this risky? I think it’s riskier to pretend a cover letter will get you in the door. Think about the best way to communicate this offer. Put it into words you are comfortable with.
You can deliver the above offer in an e-mail but it’s better via a phone call. You can also do this via a third party. Someone the employer trusts can suggest that the manager have this brief discussion with you — one of its employees, consultants, customers, vendors or other friend of the company.
Weed out tire-kickers
By the way, those “three things” you could do? Describe very briefly, but provide no details. If they press you, invoke the 10 minute limit you both agreed to. “I have another commitment so I have to run, but I’d be happy to flesh out the details with you in a proper job interview. When is good for you?”
This is a great way to weed out tire-kickers who want applicants to invest time and effort that they won’t invest themselves. Of course, you will have to do a bit of work in advance to pull this off. Suggesting specific ways you can do the job profitably will not be easy. But if this opportunity isn’t worth your time to do that, then this employer and job are not worth the time and guesswork to write a cover letter.
Remember: While they are judging your compliance with their hiring process, you must judge them, too, on how they pick their candidates. Are they ready to roll up their sleeves and talk shop for a few minutes, or are they too busy eating cover-letter and baloney sandwiches?
Do you need a cover letter to apply for a job? Do you know something better? If you don’t use cover letters, how do you get an employer’s attention?