Business success depends on building and maintaining relationships — healthy, professional, mutually beneficial relationships. Sometimes this happens via marketing (need meets awareness meets solution) or through existing personal and professional connections, but many times a strategic new business relationship results from networking. You might think, "That's old school," "Been there, done that," or even "Networking is the face-to-face equivalent of cold calling." My answer? Not if you network with a fresh "do this and not that" approach. Here's what I mean:
Do: Look for networking opportunities.
Don't: Wait for a networking event.
Obviously, to network, you'll need to seek out opportunities to engage with others. It's not difficult to find in-person networking events in your area — think "speed dating" type business meetups, trade shows, conferences, conventions, luncheons, Chamber of Commerce meetings, one-on-one meetings at a coffee shop and more.
But networking doesn't really require a physical event these days. Online opportunities abound as social networks and platforms empower you to engage at a group level or one-on-one. LinkedIn is the "big kahuna" for professional networking and outreach, but even more purely social platforms can be used to listen for needs and discuss business solutions. You can search these platforms for terms or hashtags relevant to your expertise. Best of all, if you are an introvert, online networking might eliminate the fear factor that comes with being in the room.
Do: Research the room.
Don't: 'Work' the room.
Speaking of "the room," it's a common expectation that for in-person networking to be effective, you must be confident and comfortable going up to strangers and "working the room" through one intro-and-pitch after another. In my experience, this is ineffective at best, and just plain off-putting at worst. The better strategy is to do some research beforehand. If you know of specific people who will be there, learn what you can about them. This way, you'll be able to identify and connect with someone who can then also direct you to other key players in the room.
Do: Set reasonable expectations.
Don't: Expect to make a sale.
Whether you are networking online or in person, have a goal upfront. But make it reasonable. Don't make it your objective to make a sale. Instead, plan to listen and learn. Plan to get acquainted. Plan to help others connect. Simply be thankful if someone feels compelled to connect you to a future client.
Do: Have something to say.
Don't: Make every conversation a pitch.
Make sure you can talk about your product or service in a way that makes sense to someone who doesn't have your expertise. Focus on phrases that help the other person understand the impact your product or service makes, not the mechanics of how that happens. If you lead with an obvious canned elevator pitch, the other person will know it. Focus on serving others — that's a great way to build a business relationship!
Do: Be personable.
Don't: Get too personal.
Of course, you should be friendly and kind, but be sure to maintain some professional distance even as you seek to find common ground and build rapport. Don't dive too deeply into personal waters. Remember that certain topics — even ones commonly discussed among friends — can be dangerous territory when networking with virtual strangers. Want to discuss politics? Don't. Religion? Not in a business setting. Sports? Okay, but be prepared to catch some grief if your favorite team isn't the "local" favorite.
Do: Make sure you get contact information.
Don't: Assume the business card is complete.
How many times have you attended a networking event and collected business cards without really looking at them? If so, you might find that certain cards are generic corporate examples that do not include your contact's name, email address or phone number. Card or no card, don't forget to ask for and confirm contact details so you can follow up.
Do: Follow up and follow through.
Don't: Follow a dead end.
Speaking of following up, do that! Send an email or an old-fashioned card or letter right away. This will help you accomplish three things: You're able to thank the other person for their time, it allows you to offer assistance if the other person has a specific request and it reinforces your referral needs. Of course, if you've promised to do something for the other person, don't just follow up. Follow through.
Don't, however, follow a dead end. Instead of getting bogged down in a conversation clearly going nowhere with someone who is neither a good prospect nor prospective lead generation source, find a tactful way to move on. Don't be rude, but don't let yourself — or the other person — miss the chance to locate more promising opportunities.
So, what's the bottom line when it comes to successful business networking? Put simply, networking is about building relationships based on trust, and trust is built not by selling but by listening and solving problems. That's the "do this and not that" approach to networking smarter and not harder.