Today's post is about the system I use to keep in touch with former coworkers, colleagues, clients, and others. The punchline is that this has lead to my last several jobs, several past consulting gigs, helped me find people to work with on Interrobang, and more importantly, has helped me maintain relationships with people I care about.
The problem I was trying to solve was straightforward, and I think is fairly common for many people. Simply put, when a coworker or a colleage quits, people say they want to keep in touch, and they probably mean it, but then life happens, and they don't.
Early Stumbles and Goal Formation
I tried various systems to address this, most involving spreadsheets, but it became too easy to ignore, and too painful to use regularly.
The ideal end state, for me, would be a system that integrated into my daily routine and tools, which would make it easy for me to actually use. "Easy enough" for me also means not having to do manual data entry, which was one of the downfalls of the spreadsheet.
Version 1: The Half Birthday Calendar
The first succesful version of the system leveraged Google Calendar. I had a dim memory of reading about the most successful car salesperson in the United States (as judged by sales volume). His secret: he sent birthday cards to literally everyone he met, ever. That was it. The small prompt was enough to keep him "front of mind" when people went shopping for a car.
Of course, with Facebook still being new and popular at the time I was developing my system, everyone remembered each other's birthdays and wrote on their walls. I wanted to 1) stand out and be memorable, 2) not send something so impersonal as a Facebook message, and 3) I'm the Awkward Engineer, so I wanted something quirky that would make me happy, too. I set up Google Calendar reminders for people's half birthdays.
I use the calendar regularly, and it served as a nice system for reminding me to keep in touch with people, and it genuinely seemed to delight people to surprise them with half birthday wishes.
But there were some people I wanted to talk with more often than once a year, and entering calendar reminders every 3 months was too much data entry, which lead to Version 2.
Version 2: Full Blown CRM
At some point, I decided to invest in using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Normally, businesses use these to keep track of active deals in their pipeline, make sure they're checking in with existing customers, and developing their inbound leads.
For me, I wanted a way to know when the last time I talked to someone was, and I wanted to make it easy to send them a message. This is a core feature of all CRMs. The better ones integrate really well with Gmail, and the data entry for entering contacts and last messaged information is done automatically, plus they can send messages through Gmail on your behalf.
I use a CRM called Contactually.com (I'm grandfathered in under an old pricing scheme, they charge a fair bit more now, and target real estate professionals), which met the bar for being easy enough to actually use, and integrated well enough with my existing tools.
In practice, I typically send people messages every 6-9 months (although sometimes I do take a break or slip up and the interval goes a bit longer). The tool has a simple dasboard that pops up with a list of who to send messages to, with a little button to start composing an email.
Sometimes people respond, sometimes they don't. Sometime they might not respond for a year or two, and that's ok too.
One More Secret
There's one more secret to keeping this system running, that I haven't shared yet. While the CRM was a huge leap forward, I would still have lapses. I decided maintaining these relationships with former colleages was something that was truly important to me, so now, I leverage a personal assistant to help me dictate, customize, and modify messages. She also helps me follow up with people and coordinate meetings. More on this in another post. What's important, is that our regularly scheduled, super short, morning phone calls act as the accountability function that makes sure I keep up with this habit.
All this might seem like a lot, but it's hard to argue with the results.
In one instance (and this is a typical pattern), I cold emailed to apply for a job, which had actually been filled already. Even though the job wasn't available, they liked that my email was firstname.lastname@example.org and they brought me in for an interview anyway.
I kept in touch and had lunch with them once or twice over the next year or two. Later, that turned into a referal for some consulting gigs, and then later, it turned into a consulting gig directly with the original company. The consulting gig ended, and many of the employees have since moved on, but they were truly awesome, talented, fun people, and yes, I still talk to them. Every 6-9 months.
And that's how I keep in touch with people.
aka THE Awkward Engineer