By Howard Levy
People often say that they wish they knew “how to network.” There’s no doubt that networking is an essential component of success. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which many people think of networking as some sort of exotic art (it’s not) or something that’s only taught in business school (it isn’t).
Like many good things in life, networking takes practice, enthusiasm and patience. And it works. Imagine if I told you that people who are not part of your social network, or your family, or your profession would be willing to help you succeed. Without charging you a penny. They will, but only if you ask them. Only if you tell them what you need. And only if it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
This takes time. It involves getting to understand other people’s needs and looking for ways to help them. For some people, interacting comes naturally; for others, it doesn’t. However, networking skills can be learned. Here are my Top 10 Ways to become at better at networking.
1. Be a consummate professional. People will respect what you have to say if it’s clear that you really understand your business. It’s not enough to just have a mission statement and elevator pitch, though you need that; you also need to have a track record in solving your clients’ problems. It also goes without saying, or should, that you also need to abide by the highest professionals standards in everything you do.
2. Know your audience. Understand the size and nature of your market. Know what problems you can solve for your clients. And most important, listen to people talk about their problems.
3. Understand your spheres of influence.Here’s where it gets interesting. Most of us think about ourselves in narrow, simplistic terms. You may be the best widget salesperson in the world, but you’re also a lot more than that. Make a list of your spheres of influence and make sure to include the following: professional relationships, associations, religious groups, hobbies and other activities, club memberships, alumni associations – you get the idea. Then add in all of your family contacts and neighbors and friends, and you’ve got the beginnings of a great networking list.
4. Create a contact database. This is potentially your most valuable asset, and most people can build a list of 200 to 500 names in a few years. But it’s not enough to know these people – you have to maintain the contact in an electronic database that’s segmented by category, keywords and priorities. Sound tough? It’s not. Most of us already use organizational tools like Microsoft Outlook. And while more sophisticated tools exist (for example, ACT or Filemaker), Outlook is a good start. Start keeping tracking of information like employment, family, key dates (anniversary, birthday, etc.), activities and interests, learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and communications preference (email over voice, face-to-face meetings over conference calls, etc.).
5. Get in front of people as often as you can. Meet with your contacts on a regular basis. See clients, don’t just call them. Attend networking events on a regular basis. Get involved in professional associations.
6. Know how to build relationships. Identify common interests and passions. Share common values. Understand different personality traits and the things that motivate people (career, family, religion, hobbies, etc.). Listen to what problems they are solving for others. Have a routine or mechanism to stay in touch.
7. Look out for other people’s interests.This is another way of saying do the other guy a favor before you ask for one. Look out for their needs – send articles of interest, let them know of events and other opportunities in their industry. Build rapport though social events. Show your appreciation – say thank you (verbally, card, gift, dinner, etc.).
8. Understand how to ask for a referral.Many people don’t like to ask for help. The real issue is knowing how and when to ask for help. Here’s what works for me. With clients, a good time is when I know I’ve done a really good job that met their objective. With non-clients, it’s when I know I could do a really good job for someone they know. But with contacts in both categories, you first have to address their psychological reluctance against giving the referral. How? Tell them what you want to get out of the referral (introduction, sale, build relationship, introduction to others, etc.). Tell them how you will handle the call and meeting (this is very important). Assure them that you will exercise discretion and maintain confidentiality. Ask about other connections (things you have in common, how they met, etc.). Thank them – and always call the referral contact when you say you will and then keep the referrer in the loop. Sounds simple? It is, but you have to do it.
9.Make a commitment to networking This can’t be a once-a-year thing. Seek to constantly meet new people and keep in contact with clients, referral sources and others. Keep people updated about your situation — new job, new services, new groups, people they might be interested in meeting, etc. Look for opportunities to bring people together even if it’s not directly for business (for example, an industry event they might be interested in). And continually seek to improve your networking skills.
10. Trust your instincts. This is the big one. You know more than you think you know. You know more people than you think you know. And you have interesting things to say that cut across business or social lines. All it takes is practice, enthusiasm and patience.
Howard Levy is principal of Red Rooster Group, a branding agency that creates effective brands and marketing campaigns. www.RedRoosterGroup.com / 212-673-9353.