Meeting and greeting new business contacts is about so much more than attending rubber chicken, grip-and-grin networking events where you smile till your face hurts, press a lot of flesh, and shove business cards into every hand that you can. Take heed of this sure-fire advice on how to get more mileage from your networking.
Perhaps you, like many others, have gone through this baffling sequence of events: A business professional with high hopes of moving up in corporate America puts on his best suit, polishes his shoes to a new money shine, stuffs an expensive leather holder with business cards printed on the finest paper, and heads to one of the many “networking events” taking place in his area. While at the event, where both entry-level rookies and middle managers may find themselves side by side with top-level senior executives, he flashes his most charming smile and manages to slip his credentials into every conversation. After countless handshakes and a few brief encounters with the most powerful people in the room, he heads home with a bulging pocket full of business cards. But when he later attempts to call or e-mail the individuals he met in hopes of finding out about job opportunities or new business prospects, he receives no responses. Sound familiar?
According to noted public speaker and business communications expert James Amps, passing out business cards at a “networking event” is probably the least effective way to actually network “A lot of people don’t want to face the harsh reality that people in power meet individuals every day who need something, who would like their help in some way,” says Amps, the author of the best-selling book, “Speaking to Excel” and President/CEO of Amps Communications. “The question you have to ask yourself is, “Why should they help me?”
To understand how to truly build a network, individuals should not reduce the act of networking simply to meeting people and trying to persuade those people to help them. According to noted networking expert George Fraser, the brain behind Cleveland’s annual “Power Networking Conference” for black professionals, individuals should instead learn to look at networking as “the collaboration of two minds towards a higher goal.” “True networking takes place when people are able to collaborate and build a relationship that will help both of them to get closer to their business and professional goals,” Fraser says.
When one is able to master this concept, then the possibilities for success through networking are endless. Most human resources and recruitment professionals would agree that networking plays an immeasurable role in securing fulfilling and lucrative employment.
“By far, the most popular and effective methods that I’ve seen students use to find jobs after graduation are our meet-and-greet sessions with employers, recruitment luncheons and similar low-key events,” says Shannon Caldwell, a counselor in the Career and Placement Office of an Ivy League school.” Many students who don’t secure jobs through our extensive recruiting and networking program find themselves lost once they are out there on their own and blindly applying to companies. Even those who don’t manage to find employment while they are in school often return to say they finally found something through a contact, rather than a want-ad.”
In case the unfortunate situation described above has ever happened to you, here is advice from experts on how to make sure it does not happen again:
Learn to Listen not Talk!
For most individuals ambitious enough to have completed business school, talking about themselves, their accomplishments and their aspirations has become almost second-nature. They learn how to write cover letters, how to introduce themselves, and how to answer the “Tell me about yourself?” question in an interview. But what about their listening skills?
“I would say that over 90 percent of networking is actually listening,” says Amps.” Once people find out where an important person who can help them is going to be, they spend too much time in front of the mirror practicing what they are going to say about themselves once they actually meet this person. There is so much anxiety and emphasis on talking, that individuals often do not prepare themselves to listen.”
The reason why listening is so important in networking goes back to Fraser’s conclusion that true networking is about building relationships and collaboration.
“So what if you graduated the top of your class or were the top performer at your previous job?” Amps says. “Such information usually has nothing to do with an individual’s specific needs. You have to be prepared to state how you can help this person with their business and professional challenges. If you give an individual a chance, they will always talk about their challenges and problems. You have to listen to what people want and need so that you can figure out how to use that need to your advantage. Even if I can’t help them, I will try to recommend or think of someone who can. That way, they will remember me and pick up my call.” This leads to the next strategy individuals should use to network effectively…
Do Your Homework!
It is probably not a good idea to walk into an expert panel or meet-and-greet session without reading up on the panelists and scheduled attendees. Search the prospects’ Web sites, review recently published articles, or do an Internet search on their companies or organizations. Such research is key if you are to understand what the individual’s needs are and how you might fit into their equation in a way that benefits you and them. This extra preparation insures that you will not only be able to strike up an interesting conversation, but also think in advance about the specific qualities and ideas you have that will benefit the person with whom you hope to build a relationship.
Go the Extra Mile to Make Yourself Stand Out
Experts agree that following up with e-mail is a great way to initially make contact with a new business relationship; however, sometimes it may not be enough.
“Most in-demand business people receive hundreds of emails a day,” says award-winning author and motivational speaker Willie Jolly. “I definitely recommend following up immediately with an email, and then touching base on a regular basis over email from time to time. However, it can be a little bit impersonal. Sometimes, a phone call or a card lends the personal touch that is necessary to get the response you desire.” Going the extra mile for success is often a hard concept to grasp for individuals who are just starting out, Amps suggests. “We can get so `me,me,me ’ focused that we forget that we are dealing with very busy people who might be stressed or overextended,” he says. He suggests sending appropriate business gifts or cards if you haven’t heard from a potential contact within the time that you had expected. Amps also swears by spending a little extra money to get a response. “Most high-level executives and business owners don’t open their own snail mail precisely because they receive a lot of solicitation, “Amps says. “But,they will open their Fed-Ex packages. When you haven’t gotten the attention you want for your idea or project, then you know it’s Fed-Ex Time!”
Diversify Your Activities, Hobbies and Social Circle
Jolly says that true business-minded people are always networking, no matter where they are. He says that he has begun some of his most important relationships by meeting people outside of a business setting. “Networking is really just a fancy way of saying `making friends,’ he says.”I’ve always had a desire to meet people, develop friendships and treasure relationships. If you’re sitting next to someone on a plane and you strike a conversation, you ’re networking. I carry business cards everywhere because I never know who I am going to meet. I even carry them in my fanny pack at the gym; my next client or business partner could be sweating on the bike right next to me!”
Amps agrees with Jolly on the importance of being prepared to make a business contact any time, any place.
Your activities and friends should represent a wide variety of industries and interests,” Amps says.” The problem with restricting your network to people in your line of work or business area is that they will most often only have access to the same resources and information that you have. But if you meet people outside your usual circle, then they will know people who know people who can provide you with totally new ideas and information.
Volunteer at a homeless shelter, tutor students, go to an event at your alma mater, take your spinning class at a different time, take up a new hobby or explore a new art form —anything that will ensure that you are always, always, always meeting new people.”
Have a Solid Presentation AT ALL TIMES!
Nothing will shut down your attempt at networking quicker than a sloppy portfolio, unrehearsed introduction, and crumpled business cards .This is an old rule that remains the same:You only get one chance to make a first impression. But don’t restrict your best behavior and appearance to business events. Because you never know who you will meet, it is important that you are well-groomed and in good spirits as often as you possibly can be. You should be thinking about networking all the time, not just when you have on your game face around professionals. You never know if you will run into someone from the grocery-store checkout line when you made a scene about a price discrepancy during a late-night Twinkie run.
Don’t be Ashamed!
Many business professionals drop the ball and don’t follow up because they are worried about being a nuisance to the people with whom they want to connect. However, Jolly says that people who are ashamed to network or shy about following up often are left behind by more aggressive individuals.
“No one is saying that you should call someone’s office every hour,” he says. “But if they give you their business card and tell you, `Call me if you need me,’ 9 times out of 10 they are sincere. So don’t be ashamed! Pick up the phone, remind them who you are and where you met, and strengthen that contact. You cannot be afraid to put yourself out there to get what you want.”
“If you have done a good job of showing how you can help [someone] with a business challenge, then they should want to touch bases with you, “Amps says. Again, the key is listening and finding out how you can benefit the person you want to build a relationship with.”
Maintain Strong Ties with Former Employers, Clients and Business Partners
Jolly says that people often overlook former classmates, employers and other acquaintances from their pasts when they are building relationships. He says that individuals should approach all of their jobs as a way to build a network for future employment and business opportunities. Leaving a job or severing a business relationship on bad terms could catch up with you.
“Most people get up every day, go to a job, work eight hours, and collect a pay check,” he says.” They are not building relationships while they are on the job. You should consistently distinguish yourself as someone who can get the job done and is willing to help others. You should also maintain the utmost professional integrity and courtesy at all times, even when you are on your way out the door. If you have established yourself as a reliable individual who does quality work, people will remember you and keep you in the loop about opportunities. In the best cases, you could end up taking on your former employer as a client; where you used to be an employee, you are now a business partner.”
So, if you haven’t had much success in the past with networking, don’t throw away your business cards and give up. It is just time to sharpen your strategy. Take the act of handing out business cards to a whole new level, and become a winner in the game of networking.