The first step in successful networking is identifying what you want in a connection; relationships take energy, you must be willing to put in the time and effort in the connections that will make a difference. Be sure to spend some time and write down the goals you have for the connection, this will ensure you get results. In most cases, the connections we want are business oriented. We want sales leads, future employers, potential employees, technical ideas, or simply credentials that come from belonging to the “right club”.
The best way to make connections in the modern business world is to have a professional social media presence, i.e. LinkedIn, Ladders, etc. This is a pre-requisite, as anyone you might start to connect with will use these to check you out at some point in the relationship formation process. Notice that this is necessary, but not enough to establish a strong network. Physical presence is almost always required to start a relationship. You have to go to where the right connections go, talk the talk and walk the walk. You will find that many groups are welcoming to new members, if you have shown the initiative to find them. Social and service organizations have traditionally been the best places to meet local business and political leaders. Beware, you may also be meeting nothing but salespeople eager to network with you. Another idea to find groups: look online at places like Meetup.com. These websites are especially useful for connecting with specific people interested in a well-defined topic. If you do not find one convenient to you, then start one in your area!
That was the easy part; you now know where to find and meet contacts who could be good connections and you are ready to start networking. What’s next?
The first step to prepare yourself is to dress appropriately for the group. In some cases, this means: a dark suit, white shirt, power tie and other times it means jeans and a clean t-shirt. Always dress based on what you think the contact would be comfortable wearing themselves. Do not forget to bring a stack of business cards with you; in addition to giving them to a potential connection, they make good writing pads. Bring a pen and an extra one in case someone else needs to borrow yours.
Networking is all about establishing a relationship. The best way to do that is by paying attention to the other person and asking questions that give them the opportunity to speak; basically, show interest in them! At a first meeting, your objective is simply to get to know them. If they have a business card, take it and use it to take notes about them and their situation while they talk. Practice your own short introduction about who you are, make it brief and then turn the conversation back to them. After your first meeting, you need to decide whether the person meets the criteria for a good connection. If they pass, then send them a note, email is fine at this point, expressing your interest in what they were talking about and try to ask a question. The follow up is critical as it cements the start of a networking relationship.
The next step in the networking process is to schedule a coffee or a lunch meeting. You should have plenty to talk about due to email and phone exchanges you may have conducted with them in the meantime. By the time the next meeting of your group occurs, you will have established at least one contact in your network. Remember to maintain your network with a monthly email and appearance at the group event. Follow these steps and you will soon be a professional at making business connections and expanding your network, good luck!