Successful networking takes more than exchanging your business cards. You could have a Rolodex full of contacts, but how many of these people could introduce you to a possible client, or help you negotiate for a better contract? Here are simple tips for building a business network that matters, from using the web to your advantage, to deepening your business relationships after the first exchange of his and hellos.
1. Join web communities.
Look for websites of industry associations, charitable organizations, local business organizations, or communities that are related to your business. Sign up for newsletters so you know when they have events that you can attend. Participate in forums, offering advice in pertinent topics so you build rapport and credibility, too.
2. Attend seminars and trade conferences.
Get to know the people in your industry. They can give you great leads or introduce you to suppliers and future clients, but share invaluable advice on how to improve your business.
3. Start a blog related to your work.
It’s one of the best ways to be seen as an authority in your industry, and acts as ‘living portfolio’ that you can mention each time you go on a forum, attend a seminar or trade conference, or even makes a sales pitch to your client. Your blog can also showcase your past work, or include links to the websites of suppliers or other trade partners. They’ll appreciate the visibility, and return the favor one day.
4. Don’t be a user.
People smell insincerity. Don’t just ‘network’ to find clients or projects. Invest first in building relationships, and get to know people for who they really are. As the saying goes, build a friend first and a client second. Believe in the law of karma and that what goes around comes around—a reputation of being a good, reliable, trustworthy person who runs a business with a ‘heart’ can actually be better for you in the long run. They’ll trust you, and as human psychology goes, are more likely to recommend you to other people because they ‘like’ who you are.
Given this, it’s very important that you aren’t a ‘snob’ and only talk to people who can be useful to you. It’s tacky, and just plain stupid. The secretary you yelled at is probably going to tell her boss that you’re a jerk. And you never know when the poor assistant you snickered at will become the brand manager of a big client.
5. Ask smart, sincere questions.
Don’t talk about boring topics like the weather, or all the other inane chitchat that takes place in cocktails. The secret to real, genuine and memorable conversation—the type that make people remember who you are—is to ask good personal questions. For example, if you’re at a trade event, ask the other person why he chose to join this particular industry, or what he likes most about his job. If he mentions that he goes on a lot of business trips, ask ‘What’s the most interesting city you’ve ever visited?’ People like talking about themselves, and these will certainly build rapport and pave the way to a good working relationship.
5. Become a bridge.
If you want to network, so do other people. One way to win people’s trust (and business) is to help them in their own networking. Introduce them to people who can help them, or share a tip that’s helped you, too. Their gratitude will go a long way in nurturing your relationship with them.
6. Build your credentials.
Getting to know people is just one aspect of networking. It’s also important to have something to offer to others. So, expand your skills and experience and find a way to let people know that this is your area of expertise—through conversation, your blogs and marketing collaterals, or even the tips you give. That way, they’ll naturally refer you to others. ‘He’s the best person you can talk to.’
7. Focus on quality, not quantity, of connections
When you’re at an event, it’s far better to spend time deepening your ‘connection’ to two or three people rather than working the entire room. Try to get real, interesting conversations going—assessing not just the person’s skills or experience, but personality and interests. This takes time, but it pays off—even if you only meet a handful of people, you know you’ve made an impact and won’t just be one among 1 dozen of calling cards they collected that night.
8. Be observant.
Look out for small details. Let’s say that at a trade event you had a chance to talk to the VP of huge company that could give you a lot of business. You may be tempted to just talk about work, but pay attention to little details. Did he mention that he hopes to catch a play while he’s in town? You may discover that he’s a big fan of musicals. Send him good tickets to a good show. Or maybe he mentioned that his wife is pregnant. Take note of her due date and be sure to send a congratulatory email. Those little details matter.
9. Don’t wait till the holidays to do PR.
It’s common practice to send gifts or cards to clients or business partners during the holidays, birthdays or company anniversaries. However, you’ll be one of many people who’ll be doing that—and your gift isn’t likely to be remembered.
So aside from sending an email or a bouquet of flowers on their birthday (you can use software to send you a reminder) make small but meaningful gestures. For example, if you know a client is a working mom, remember her child’s birthday and send him a gift. Or, set meetings when you know it’s most convenient for her. ‘I know you have to pick up your son from school, so would you like us to teleconference earlier in the day?’
Also set time each week to send emails or have short phone calls to different contacts, just to touch base. That way, they remember you, and you avoid being branded as someone who only calls when you need something.