Most of the dialogue about networking to build your business centers around attending events or social networking online. But I've always found that one-on-one networking is where the real magic happens. Meeting with people individually, in person or by phone, builds the "know, like, and trust" factor, generates referrals, connects you with new resources, and creates lasting relationships.
To people who are natural networkers, this type of connecting may come easily. But many entrepreneurs tell me they find the process of one-on-one networking mysterious, awkward, or daunting. Here are seven steps to help any entrepreneur become a master networker.
1. Choose who to network with.
Networking is not selling. While you might network with people who could become clients, your purpose is not to close a sale. The aim of a networking conversation is to build a mutually beneficial relationship. The benefit you're seeking may be referrals to prospective clients, information about your market or field, or suggestions and resources to boost your success. The benefits most important to you should drive your choice of who to network with.
If you are seeking referrals, your best choice for networking will be people who are in regular contact with your target market. This usually means they are either in your target market themselves, or they serve it. A graphic designer serving entrepreneurs, for example, might network with other entrepreneurs, preferably those with active networks of their own. Or she might network with photographers, web designers, and others with entrepreneurs as their market.
2. Plan your approach.
Before reaching out, determine the primary purpose for your contact. Perhaps you want to acquaint the other person with your business so he could refer to you in the future. Or you might like to learn what she knows about the high tech industry. Or you might want to find out where you could speak locally to reach corporate training directors.
Since networking is intended to be mutually beneficial, think about what you could offer the other person. Could you refer him business occasionally? Or can you provide useful information or ideas? If you're not sure what you could provide, be prepared to ask, "How could I be helpful to you?" Make the offer of reciprocity, even when you don't yet know what that might look like.
3. Reach out with a call or email.
Place a phone call or send an email, stating the reason for your contact. Suggest that the two of you set up a convenient time to meet in person or by phone.
You might say something like this: "I understand we both serve the health care industry, and we may be able to help each other be more successful. Could we get together and talk about that?"
Or like this: "I'd like to do more work with schools, and I know you're well-connected in that world. Could I ask you to give me a few pointers? I'd be happy to return the favor if there's some way I could be of assistance to you."
Or this: "I'm interested in writing some articles for financial publications. Since you've been doing that for a while yourself, would you be willing to pass along some suggestions? Perhaps I could also help you with something you're working on."
4. Follow up if they don't respond.
Don't make one attempt and then give up, thinking the other person isn't interested. You may have contacted him at a busy time, she may be ill or on vacation, your voice mail could have been accidentally deleted, or your email never arrived. Wait a week or two, then try again. Consider calling if you emailed before, or vice versa. If you still don't hear back, wait a month and reach out again. Just be sure never to make the other person wrong for not replying before.
5. Meet in person or by phone.
Begin by asking for more details about the other person's occupation, even if you think you know everything. Expressing interest in others will increase their comfort level in talking to you. Then tell them a bit about your own work to provide a context for your request. Next, ask for what you want from the meeting, and at the same time, make a reciprocal offer.
For example: "I'm looking for more referrals for my business, and I suspect you may be also. Could we exchange some information today that might help us refer to each other?" Or: "I'd like to get more doctors to refer their patients to me, and I was hoping you could give me some insights to help with that. And I'd like to find out what I might be able to help you accomplish."
Never use a networking request to lure someone into a sales conversation unless you want to make an enemy for life. Only if the other person clearly expresses an interest in working with you should you turn the topic to how you might do business together.
6. Follow up after you meet.
After your meeting, send a note thanking the other person for his time, and expressing your pleasure at getting to know him better. Include any supporting information relevant to your conversation, such as a link to your website, description of your ideal client, or copy of an article you've written.
7. Follow up over time.
If you felt your meeting was productive, stay in touch to keep the relationship alive. Suggest that your new acquaintance subscribe to your newsletter or blog, or connect with you on Facebook or LinkedIn. Reach out personally every three to four months with a note, phone call, forwarded article, or invitation to an event you're attending or hosting. Try to get together in person or by phone at least once per year.
To get more out of networking, follow these seven steps and get to really know the people who can help your business succeed. When you see the kind of results one-on-one networking can produce, you'll be glad you spent the time.
Copyright © 2011, C.J. Hayden
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