In the world of professional service marketing, and any marketing in fact, building your network of referral sources and centers of influence is critical. Additionally, like any other marketing activity, networking is a task that needs to be planned in an orderly fashion and carried out in a strategic manner.
One of the best ways to expand and nurture your network is through regularly attending gatherings where networking takes place. These events can be as basic and banal as Chambers of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings, or Business Network International (BNI) events. Networking events can also be forums that are narrower in focus where attendees shares a common industry such as bio-technology or manufacturing.
No matter what type of networking event you are at, the rules of successful networking remain the same. With that in mind I thought I would provide you with a non-comprehensive list of the do’s and don’ts of networking.
- Define your purpose for attending a given event Why have you chosen to attend this particular event? Are you there to just shake a few hands, exchange some business cards and otherwise be sociable? Did your boss make you go? Are you there only looking to increase sales? For your sake I hope there is more to your attendance. Your purpose for attending a networking event should be to meet other professionals, learn about their challenges and roadblocks and then figure out how you can help them. If you’re only there for yourself you might as well not show up at all. Networking is a two-way street and the more you can help others the more they will help you.
- Take care of your homework – Do as much as you can to learn who might be attending these events. Talk to others who have attended in the past. What types of issues do people in these occupations/industries/geographics face? Are there recent developments that are in the news? Again, learn as much as you can ahead of time. Read the newspaper or business journals. Do a little research on the web. Talk to those people already in your network who might have similar issues.
- Know who you are and how you can help – In many cases you have less than 90 seconds to tell the person you just met who you are and what you do. Not only that, but you will also need to communicate to them how you might be able to help them. This is most often called the elevator speech. Develop it carefully and practice it meticulously so that you can communicate it clearly and quickly.
- Learn to listen as much as you talk – To be a successful networker you need to be able to listen to what the other person is saying and make sure it is not just the words but the meaning behind them. Sometimes you will need to ‘listen between the lines’ because the person you’ve just met may not be as good at communicating as you would like them to be. Practice active listening and really learn to digest what the other person is telling you.
- Be curious, ask questions – Learn to ask questions that will help you connect with that person you’ve just met. Good, insightful questions will help develop rapport and also help you uncover some of the frustrations and roadblocks that that other person might be experiencing.
- Dress appropriately – Learn what the acceptable dress is for the event before you show up in your shorts and flip-flops. Remember, this is a business activity and should be treated as such.
- Follow up – In order to be an effective networker you need to follow-up with everyone you meet. As with any other marketing activity, following-up is the key to success. In some cases, you may wish to call and try to follow-up with a lunch or a meeting. For others, it might be a simple email. Either way, you need to follow-up on that initial meeting.
- Be patient – More often than not the person you just met last night, last week or last month won’t be referring any business your way in the short-term. You have to learn to be patient, stay in contact, and look for ways to help that person. Eventually they will do the same for you.
- Don’t be an obnoxious jerk – No one likes the loud and abrasive type. Seriously.
- Don’t ask too many questions – After all, this is networking not an interrogation. You can ask more questions in your follow-up meeting(s).
- Don’t linger too long – People attending networking events want to meet and learn about as many people as they can. You should do the same.
- Don’t think only of yourself – It’s pretty easy to spot the man/woman in the room who’s there solely for themselves. Most good networkers will spot that person pretty quickly and stay away.
- Don’t be a bragger – If you focus too much on yourself you’ll turn others off. Keep it focused on a quick summary of who you are and what you do, then move on to learning more about them.
- Don’t look for free advice – This is a networking event, not a chance to corner someone and get free legal, accounting, financial, or other advice.
- Don’t come unprepared – This is a cardinal sin. You must do your homework and be prepared to talk with other folks about a wide range of topics.