If ever a business buzz word has been mashed and hammered into something unrecognizable, it is "networking." Some people see a networking event simply as a hundred-yard dash to give and receive as many business cards as possible in one hour or less! And then they wonder why no meaningful connections have been made. Then there are those souls who talk more than they listen while asking for more than they offer during a networking opportunity. Let me tell you what the bumps, bruises and benefits of hundreds of those encounters has taught me.
In my world, the three basic tools you need are these: The most fundamental is a sincere interest in other people and their businesses. Without that, your moves have a hollow ring. The most necessary trait is having a real interest in helping others. Your physical tools should include lots of well-designed business cards plus a stack of good stationery note cards back at the office. Yes, you should have a well-sharpened "elevator pitch" to effectively tell people what you do in 30 seconds or less. Here's what I say: "In this digital era, every company needs to see itself as a media company and my business is to help you make video one of your most effective communication tools."
Those note cards are very useful in our email-saturated world. Each day I find myself wishing for a special shovel just to dispose of the deluge of incoming emails and I presume that a lot of other people have the same problem. If you really want to follow up with someone who has met you just once at a crowded event, an email may be the worst way to break through the daily clutter. The counterintuitive thing to do, then, is send a handwritten note or letter on nice stationery. Handwritten notes get read while emails are often victims of the delete button. That simple step has enabled me to build relationships with the presidents of two Fortune 100 companies who now do business with us!
At networking events I suggest you listen more than you talk. My favorite question to business people I meet is, "What is your most persistent business problem?" The goal is to have them give me a clue as to whether I can help them or suggest someone I know who may be able to help them. Yes, you should exchange business cards. There are phone apps now that will take a picture of the card and add the information to your contact list! If you promise someone to follow up with information or a web link, do it within 24 hours. Nothing says you are serious and noteworthy like timely delivery on a promise.
If you feel a connection has been made, going into the intelligence mode is an important next step. You should have some sort of software to allow building a Customer Relations Management (CRM) system. There are several, some of them cloud-based. Quick Base, Netsuite, Salesforce and ACT are among the most popular. They allow you to make detailed notes about people you've met and to track any further contact. I feel pretty good when I can tell a prospect in some detail what we discussed last year, know that her husband's name is Bill and that she enjoys reading Danielle Steel.
Of course, no system works well unless you use it well and regularly. Calendar reminders prompt what I call "KIT" calls. That means "keep in touch" outreach via the phone or email. Before calling or sending, I Google their name, company name and their industry category to see if there are new developments that can be mentioned. Of course you'll check Facebook and LinkedIn to see what's listed there for them. You have to show you care if you want them to care. Today's electronic tools can give you access to volumes of information that only a spy agency could have a decade ago.
If you are now networking with a capital "N," the benefits start to show up pretty quickly. That doesn't always mean that your order basket fills up instantly, but that your network of prospects and fellow business people will grow exponentially. Every successful person I've asked says that you are only as good as your network. There are two books on the subject that I give people. They are Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty by Harvey Mackay and Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. Like a great fisherman, what every business owner wants is a well-stocked lake to toss their hook into.