The core of your entrepreneurial success is your network. Your network includes the people you can rely on to reach out to and meet your business needs. It consists of clients, prospects, friends, family, colleagues, and others in your industry – even competitors.
Networking is any activity you do to establish new connections, cultivate relationships, or maintain the network you already have. Unfortunately, most people get networking all wrong. They think it means going to annoying gatherings to collect and pass out business cards.
Successful networking is more like an art. There’s no magic formula you can follow to ensure your network grows by leaps and bounds. But there are tried-and-true methods to increase the likelihood that your networking is successful.
Set your intentions
Every time you plan to engage in a networking activity – attending an event, joining a group, or picking up the phone to reach out to a suggested connection – start with an intention in mind. What would like to accomplish by interacting with a particular person or set of people?
Your goal should never be to make a quick sale. That’s not what networking is about. Are you looking for new prospects? Are you searching for collaboration opportunities? Do you want to become well-known in your community? Being aware of the type of networking opportunity and the status of likely attendees or connections will determine your goals. Always know exactly why you are networking, so you can focus your intentions and avoid wasting time.
Make a strong impression
The way you present who you are and what you do is the most important part of networking. While you might think an “elevator speech” sounds too canned, you better be able to spit out what you do clearly, concisely, and with enthusiastic passion. Within a moment of expressing interest in learning about you, everyone you encounter should be able to understand how you can help and what kind of clients you work with. You only have a few seconds to catch someone’s interest, and anyone will be turned off quickly by either a wishy washy person who lacks confidence and clarity, or someone who is so clueless and full of himself that he’s the only one in the room who knows or cares what he does. Either of those descriptions sound like you? Then it’s time you work on it.
Also, it should go without saying that you want to look your best any time you can possibly make new connections. Looking your best, and making a strong impression, is important. People are going to judge us – perfectly nice people who don’t even know they’re doing it are going to size us up. So always be well-groomed and have professional business cards on hand.
The best way to get someone to like you is to encourage her to talk about herself. People love to talk about themselves. Ask lots of open-ended questions and show genuine interest. It might seem counter-intuitive if you’re new to this, but if you guide the conversation away from you, rather than center it on you, in an initial contact you’ll make greater headway. For one, people like to know you’re interested in them. Second, it automatically makes you seem less desperate. And third, you get more insight into how she can help you. Might she need your services? Does she know someone who needs what you offer? Is she connected with anyone who would be a great resource for you? You can find out all of this wonderful information if you shut up and listen.
This is the toughest part. Following up with new connections is time-consuming and can be overwhelming. If you meet tons of people, it may be difficult to find the time to follow up with all of them, but the gold is in the follow through. Develop a system for categorizing contacts, schedule a process for checking in, and make notes on how you can offer value to cultivate new relationships. If you don’t follow up in a timely manner and work to keep a relationship going, it will fizzle and all your efforts will be wasted.
Give more than you take
Many people look at their network as a wealth of resources. They only focus on what they can get out of it, who they can call upon, and how they can cash in on their Rolodex. The problem is, in order for people to want to help you, you should help them. I’ll take it a step further to say your focus should be on giving, without even expecting anything in return. People can smell a phony from a mile away. The more generous you are to your network, the more your generosity will be returned to you exponentially.
Ask for what you want
Once you’ve cultivated a relationship, don’t hesitate to ask for what you want. People, especially in business, will expect you to call on them for advice and favors. There’s nothing wrong with stoking the fires of a give-and-take relationship. When you ask for something, this keeps the relationship flowing. It helps to solidify your connection, because you've made a transaction of sorts.
Remember that networking takes time and effort. Remain enthusiastic in your attempts to build relationships without seeming desperate. Most importantly, have fun with it. Now, go schmooze!