In addition to the definition of a ‘technical’ network, the definition in the Oxford English dictionary is:
To interact or engage in informal communication with others for mutual assistance or support.
Networking is the art of making and utilising contacts by sharing information between them. The goal of networking should be to create a pool of people and information that can help you to efficiently ‘spread the word’ of your product or service – not necessarily to sell to those network contacts.
1. Give and get information
Networking is a two-way street. When you meet people, remember that you have twice as many ears as you do mouths – and use them in this proportion. Start with the basics – name, company, affiliation, position, nature of business, etc. If appropriate, and probably over time, find out where and how you might benefit each other. Try covering these topics:
- What does your company do?
- What types of clients do you serve?
- How do you gain access to them?
- What effect do your products/services have on your customers?
- Why do people buy from you versus your competition?
- Who makes the buying decision within an organisation for each of your services and/or products?
- What, for you is ‘business utopia’?
- How much business would be too much?
- What kinds of challenges have stopped you growing more than you already have?
- Who is your largest and/or best client and why?
- Who is your most challenging client and why?
- Evaluate the value of the contact
You can’t network thoroughly with everyone. Once you’ve swapped preliminary information, you need to decide if this person is worth meeting again and investing in to create a relationship. Can you potentially help them and can they help you? The answer should be ‘yes’ to both. Seek out people who are truly interested in helping others solve a problem – with no strings attached. In other words, don’t think of yourself as a ‘networker’ (after all, why would we want to network for network’s sake?) but as a problem solver, or simply someone who likes to help – then look for those same characteristics in people when you consider adding them to your personal network.
- Form a strategic alliance
A network is not a collection of business cards, but of people. Take the time to understand the business of those in your network. If you have chosen members wisely, this should be a pleasure. And make sure that you educate them completely about what you do and with whom you do it. Give each other updates and encouragement. In effect, you become each other’s sales people, introducers and coaches.Remember that the purpose of networking is not to do business directly with your contact. Instead, you are trying to gain access to people that your contact knows. Ensure your network contact understands this so they’ll be happy to take your calls!You should also be able to turn to those in your network for management ideas, advice, leads, feedback, and even vendor recommendations. You’ll learn from each other and contribute to each other’s growth, both in terms of profit, knowledge, motivation and performance.
As your contact base grows, you will need to re-evaluate the people in your information loop. Practice effective time management skills and prioritise your contacts. Aim to get in touch most often with those that can be most useful. They will become your ‘inner circle’. Be careful never to burn bridges; you never know when someone will be able to help you, or when you might help them. If a connection isn’t immediately obvious, still check in with them from time-to-time – things change and people get promoted or move around. If you are starting your network from scratch, make lists – lots of them! Start by writing down the names of everyone you can think of – everyone you know from school, church, social clubs, old jobs, associations, friends, neighbours, relatives and so on. You should have approximately 500-600 names on this list.After compiling this list, exercise some judgement in dividing it into three categories: potential customers, leads to potential customers, and both. Next, take each potential customer list and divide into three categories – high potential, modest potential, and low potential. You’ll now have 9 cells of categories.Call those on the high potential list, or send a personalised letter and then call to follow up within 5 days. If you have many contacts, send letters in batches and allocate time to follow up.
To those on your modest potential list, send a letter and brochure – if you receive no response, send another letter or an e-mail (only) as a reminder after 2-3 weeks. In another 2-3 weeks, send another letter or e-mail. Follow up with a phone call ONLY after working through your high potential list.
To those on your low potential list, leave until last and simply send a letter or e-mail explaining what you are doing now. Follow up by phone as and when you can or invite them to subscribe to your newsletter/regular update e-mail service.
Schedule a similar maintenance plan:
- Inner circle – catch up briefly by phone at least once per month
- Modest potential – regular (monthly/bi-monthly) remote contact (email/letter) and telephone contact every quarter
- Low potential – quarterly newsletter and annual telephone follow up
- Clarify your objectives and then make a plan: you cannot form special relationships with everyone so you have to be selective
- Be prepared when you go out to meet new people. Have your diary, a pen, business cards and literature with you and know what questions you want to ask. Start by asking them what their business does but also remember to listen. It’s only when someone else is doing the talking that you find out anything new. Ask for their business card and then offer your card – make notes if necessary
- Diarise time to follow up your new contacts promptly when you get back to the office with a short e-mail -“… It was nice to meet you … I enjoyed our conversation … Let’s stay in touch … Can we meet?…” etc.
- Be a resource for referrals yourself. Be armed with contacts and useful information to give to others. This will encourage a two-way flow and people will be motivated to help you. If you can’t give leads, be a resource for them. Send them news or tips that may be useful
- One goal of networking is to get referrals, so don’t be afraid to ask “Who else should I be talking to?”/”What do you recommend.” People enjoy being asked for their opinion and will feel good if they have been able to help you
- Thank your contact for any introduction which results in a meeting and keep them updated – especially if your meeting results in business
- Establish yourself as an expert in your field, perhaps by writing articles, running seminars or by being available to talk to journalists. If you and your business are in the news, people will want to talk to you
- If you don’t have at least 200 people in your network database then you don’t have enough. Start networking again
- If you are still using a paper diary for network data, change over to an electronic organiser
- Use your network to help with your next big decision
- Attend your next trade event and aim to speak to at least 10 people
- Walk right up, smile, give a firm handshake and introduce yourself. Don’t wait for people to come up to you. Be proactive. Remember to invite ‘loners’ to join you – if you see someone ‘lurking’, invite them to join you and introduce yourself
- At events, try to keep moving! If someone clings to you, say, “I know you’re here to meet as many people as possible, so I’ll let you mingle.”
- Go alone and sit with people you do not know. Agree with existing contacts to meet up after the networking event, unless you can introduce each other to potential clients by sitting together
- Practice describing your business in two sentences and memorize them. This shouldn’t be a ‘pitch’ but a brief explanation of who you are, what you do and the kind of people you work well with – it’s not a bunch of reasons why your products/services are best!
- Keep a pen and pocket-sized pad handy
- Get to know the movers and shakers in your network groups. Each association has a few key people that coordinate events and that know everyone else and can make things happen
- Ensure your name tag is worn on the right side to provide an easy sight-line to your name when shaking hands
Most importantly – enjoy your networking! What could be more fun than swapping notes with interesting, like-minded people from different walks of life?