What Lobbyists Can Teach You About Getting What You Want

Whether around the Capitol or around the water cooler, you gotta take care of the people that help you out. Let a lobbyist show you how to get in good and develop lasting influence.

In the influence game, words don’t indicate success. Actions do. This is especially true in Washington, D.C., where words get thrown around—a lot. Those representing special interests always follow-up to ensure that the agreed-to action has really been taken. At the same time, they tend to relax the pressure a little. In most cases, the decision maker does not take the action they’ve agreed to for innocuous reasons, not because they are lying. They may simply need an occasional polite nudge, not the barrage that got them to agree with you in the first place.

As a small-business owner, I tend to think about this in the context of the simple act of sending an invoice to a client. The client has agreed to pay for our service (and in some cases the service has already been completed). We send an invoice. Unfortunately, some of our clients (I’m not naming names) do not complete the action of, well, paying, so we need to remind them. I never celebrate completing the sale until we’ve got the cash in hand.

Specific Takeaways: 

  • Even after you get a yes, be sure the action is taken.
  • Relax the pressure, without giving up completely.
  • Never assign nefarious reasons for their lack of action. Sometimes it’s just that they’re busy.
  • Be polite in your reminders. Don’t harass them until they decide they don’t want to deal with you and your cause any more.

Don’t Take Credit—Even if You Deserve It

Professional lobbyists are quick to praise and slow to give blame, especially where policymakers are involved. Despite the level of support materials or other resources they provided, lobbyists give all the credit for any success to the person or people who voted for (or against) their cause. As you might imagine, this approach makes it much easier to go back to that policymaker in the future.

For example, it’s not uncommon for a legislator’s office to make an announcement on their website or other public forum when a certain business or organization in their district has won a federal grant. In many cases, the legislator had nothing to do with the grant being awarded. It was the work of the person who wrote the proposal, the organization who lobbied for the grant, or the larger special interest who helped a local member get information about the program. Yet no one says to the legislator, “Hey, you had nothing to do with this.” They say, “Hey, we’re glad you’re so supportive of this program. Could you please vote to continue its funding?”

When using this tactic in your own influence situation, think carefully about whether you can give credit to the decision maker for a positive outcome, even if it wasn’t entirely their doing. Sure, you don’t want to fawn over them or have someone else take all the credit for your good work. But, for example, occasionally making your boss look good with the client (even if you did most of the work to achieve a positive outcome) can help you move ahead.

Specific Takeaways

  • Give others credit. Liberally.
  • When others take credit for a good outcome, turn that into an opportunity to solicit their future support.
  • Don’t get too hung-up on making sure you get all the credit for your work, especially with those you’re hoping will help you in the future.

Say Thank You

My mother would be appalled at the lack of “thank you” note writing going on in the world (including by me, frankly). As a congressional staff person, I saved all the notes I received because they were so rare. At the end of several years, I had a very small stack, maybe about 25. Why so few? I don’t think I was a horrible person to work with. I think it’s because people didn’t take the time. But I remembered those who did and, believe me, they received preferential treatment. In fact, my favorite thank-yous were those that were sent to my boss with a note indicating how helpful I had been. They made me look good.

Those who help you are spending their time, money, and resources to do so—even if you don’t get what you want. The time you take to write a simple note probably pales in comparison. From a purely selfish perspective, also remember that thank-yous help you get in good with your audience. People remember them because they are so rare.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) writes thank-you notes on the airplane as he goes back and forth between D.C. and his district several times a month. He would often come back with stacks of cards for us to mail. They ranged from brief expressions of gratitude for a visit to longer and more personal letters. Most important, he felt sincerely grateful that people cared enough about his work to spend time with him. His thank-yous are from the heart.

And they are the right thing to do. My mom would approve.

Specific Takeaways

  • Figure out who you should thank. Usually that’s anyone who took time, money, resources, or even put their reputation at stake to help you.
  • Be sincere in your thank-yous. Don’t try to curry favor by thanking people who really shouldn’t be thanked.
  • Find a way to thank them through a note or a phone call, if possible in a way that makes them look good with their superiors.
  • Be grateful for any help, even if you don’t get what you want.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington D.C. Lobbying World that Will Get You to Yes by Stephanie Vance (c) 2012 Stephanie Vance. Follow the author, a former Washington, D.C., lobbyist, on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Vinoth Chandar]

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