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How to Network Successfully

Most professionals haven’t a clue about how to network, because they view it as an opportunity to sell rather than to market.

Here is a sequence for networking, whether at a trade association meeting, civic event, business conference, recreational outing, or nearly any other activity which you know in advance you’ll be attending.

  • Learn who will likely attend the event. Obtain a participant list, a brochure, the names of the committee members, or make an educated guess. Prepare yourself for whom you’re likely to encounter, and create a “target list” of the best prospects. For example, if you know the local business page editor is attending a charity fund raiser, you may want to make his or her acquaintance so that you can eventually suggest an article. If the general manager (and a potential buyer) for the local utility is at the dance recital, you may want to try to identify him or her and begin a casual conversation during intermission.
  • Begin casual conversations during the gathering to both identify those targets you’ve chosen and to learn who else might be there who could be of help. For example, you might want to introduce yourself to another consultant whose web pages you think are excellent, to explore whether he might make his web designer’s number available to you, or approach a local designer because you’d like to understand how she might work with you.
  • Introduce yourself without describing anything about your work and simply listen. If in a group, which is likely, don’t attempt your personal networking. Wait until you can find the person alone later, and approach one-on-one, preferably when you will have few minutes in private. That’s all you need. Don’t talk to someone while your eyes work the rest of the room, and talk only as much as required to get the other person talking. You want to hear about them, their views, and their preferences.
  • When you’re able to spend a few minutes one-on-one, offer something of value, based on what you’ve heard. For example, if the person is a potential buyer who has mentioned the problem she’s having with attracting and retaining good people, suggest a book that you would be happy to pass along or a web site that you’ll send by e-mail which has articles on the subject. If the person is a graphic artist, ask permission to give his name to some people you know need literature designed. The key here is to provide value to the other person.
  • In the event you’re asked what you do, practice providing very succinct responses. Here’s a dreadful response:
    • I’m a consultant who focuses on the interactions of teams, especially cross-functionally, raises sensitivity to synergies possible in greater collaboration, and implements processes to enhance team connectedness. I use instruments such as…

    Here’s a terrific response:

    • I assist clients in improving individual and organizational performance. (If the other person says, “That’s a bit vague. How do you do that?” then you reply, “Well, if you tell me something about your organization and the issues you’re facing, I’ll show you how the approaches may apply specifically to you.”)
  • Exchange a card or somehow gather the other person’s contact information so that you can send the promised material or information. At a minimum get a phone number and e-mail address. DO NOT provide brochures, materials, or any other gimmicks or “stuff.” No one want to lug around material at any kind of event, and this stuff usually winds up in the nearest garbage can.
  • Immediately, the next morning at the latest, deliver what you promised. If you’re providing the other parties as a resources to someone else, then copy them on the e-mail or correspondence, or mention to them that you’ve given their name to the individuals you had mentioned.
  • In a week or so, follow up to see if the material was helpful, the reference worked out, the prospects called, etc. Ask if there is anything further along those line that might be helpful. Then, summarize or reaffirm you offer of further help with a letter accompanied by your promotional material and literature. Suggest to the other person that you thought they might want to learn a little more about you and what you do.
  • In a few weeks, send still more value in the form of a contact, potential customer, article of interest, etc.
  • If the other party replies with a “thank you” for your latest offer of value, then get back to them and suggest a brief meeting, breakfast, lunch, or other opportunity to get together at their convenience. Simply say that you’d like to learn more about what they do and also get their advice about what you do. If they have not responded with a “thank you” of any kind, then wait one more week, call to see if they received the additional value you send, and then suggest the meeting as described above. (Their active response simply enables you to shorten the waiting time.)

You’ve just been through ten steps of successful networking. This is not a numbers game. Obviously, if you leave an event with a fistful of unqualified and undifferentiated business cards, you’ll spend your entire existence on the steps as laid out. The power of networking is not in the quantity of the contacts, but in the quality of the contacts in terms of what they are able to do for you: buy your services, recommend you to buyers, provide publicity, offer important advice, serve as a vendor or resource, etc.

Networking is not about “how to work a room,” but rather about how to establish your value with others. Working a room is a task and an activity; establishing your value is a marketing strategy. Your success or failure in utilizing networking will reside in your own philosophy and discipline in approaching the opportunity strategically. If you provide disciplined and dedicated marketing time and energy to this virtually free opportunity every week, you will always have prospects in your pipeline and always have a surfeit of resources to call upon no matter what your particular needs.