The Definitive Guide to Business Networking

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Networking is a powerful tool for anyone in business at any level, but it's especially useful for salespeople. Network contacts give you access to opportunities that you'd never even know existed otherwise. The most difficult part of networking is getting started with your first few contacts. Once you have the beginnings of a network set up, all you need to do is treat them right and you'll be able to keep it growing indefinitely, making new connections through your existing contacts.

How to Network

The first step in building a network is deciding who you want in it. Make up a list of your ideal contacts, just as you might identify potential prospects for a sales call. Your dream contact list should contain people who can be helpful to you and your job in the long term. Some of those contacts will be leads but don't limit yourself to selling targets. Networking contacts can help out in plenty of other ways – they might be people who can get you in touch with major prospects; or people who can provide useful information on different subjects; or even people who might help you get your dream job.

If you're not sure who to look for, start with the company names and then work inward. Identify people who work for that company and target the ones whose job titles indicate that they might be the right person for your needs. If you can't get to the best person right away, start with someone else who works for that company. Once you've settled him into your network, he can help you to reach your target contact.

The mistake that many salespeople make when first setting up a network is to adopt a "spray and pray" approach to finding new contacts. This strategy won't work any better with networking than it does with selling. Racing through a networking event snatching up business cards left and right or requesting connections with half of LinkedIn is a waste of time (yours and theirs). Instead, approach your potential network contacts with the same attitude you'd use in reaching out to a new sales lead.

The first step in acquiring a network contact is the qualification phase. Ask yourself if this person is someone who could help you out, and who you could help out as well. If the relationship won't be mutual, it won't work. You can be a little more flexible in qualifying network contacts than you would in qualifying sales leads since it's possible that someone you gain as a contact isn't very useful now but will be a huge help to you in a year or two.

Use a similar qualification process when you're deciding whether to attend a particular networking event or choosing a social media platform. Networking events can be a significant time investment on your part, so don't go if you're not sure that you'll encounter a significant number of qualified potential contacts. Similarly, if the people you want to connect with spend most of their time on a particular social network platform, that's where you should be spending most of your online time as well.

Once you've identified and qualified a prospective contact, your next task is to introduce yourself. Don't wait for him to approach you, as many people are reluctant to make the first move – especially when it comes to introducing themselves to a total stranger. As a salesperson, you have a big advantage in that you are far more experienced with and comfortable with initiating contact. Once you've made a few hundred cold calls, introducing yourself to folks at the local mixer is a piece of cake.

When meeting potential contacts in person, the first two minutes of conversation will set the tone for your entire relationship. With social media and other online tools, your first message to someone is equally important. Making a good first impression is critical, especially if you're cultivating someone who already has a strong network or who is in a position of power.

Your initial conversation is your first and possibly last chance to build rapport with a prospective contact. First, try to help the other person relax. For in-person meetings, smile, act friendly, make eye contact, and use positive body language. Next, ask a question or two and use active listening to show you're interested in what he has to say. If you're introducing yourself online, keep your initial message friendly and upbeat. Try to make this initial conversation all about the other person.

If there's an opening, feel free to say something briefly about how you can add value for him, but for the most part, you should be asking questions rather than telling him about yourself. After a few minutes of conversation, it's time to transition out as naturally as possible. One good way to end the conversation on a positive note is to suggest that the two of you speak on the phone or in person at a specified later date.

Finally, once you've made the initial contact and tentatively signed the person up as part of your network, don't neglect your follow-through. Ideally, you want to do a few favors for him before you ask for a favor yourself. Suitable favors might include sending him warm leads or might be something as simple as forwarding an article that you know will interest him. Putting your contact's needs first will make him a happy, long-term member of your network.

Don't pursue contacts who can't be of help to you in some way. Keeping your network going can be time-consuming, and if you're spending a lot of time with contacts who can't actually help you in some way, you're wasting that time. Keep a list of your contacts and include the reason why they're helpful to you. If someone on your contact list can no longer help you, ease him out of your network.

Remember that your network contacts aren't cows to be milked, they're people – often busy, important people – who will expect give-and-take. If you want to add someone to your network you need to show him what's in it for him, just as you would with a prospect. The best way to lure a contact into your network is to do something for him right away. This could be something small, like sending him a useful article or introducing him to someone else you know. If it's a local person, you could invite him out for coffee.

The point is to show him that you can be of help or at least pleasant company.

As you get to know your new contacts, keep track of their interests. You can often find hobbies and so on listed on social media pages, especially Facebook. You'll be able to glean more information from your contacts' posts and emails. Knowing these details will make it much easier for you to reciprocate when someone helps you. It will also make your contacts feel better about you because they'll see that you're paying attention to their likes and dislikes.

When your network is brand new, forget about asking your contacts for favors. You need to spend some time getting to know them and doing favors for them first. If someone offers to help in some way, that's fine, but don't ask until you have established a track record of being helpful.

Once you've gotten a fair number of connections set up, your next task is to nurture those contacts and keep them happy. Networking isn't a fire-and-forget task; you can't just add contacts to your LinkedIn list and then ignore them. You've got to reach out periodically, even if it's just to say hi and ask how they're doing. If you've got local contacts, set up the occasional face-to-face meeting. It can be as simple as meeting your contact over coffee once a month. For non-local contacts, call them up and chat for a bit.

These casual conversations will go a long way towards establishing yourself as a friend and not just a name on a computer screen.

Remember that the golden rule WIIFM applies to network contacts as well as prospects. If you see a question or request from a contact and you can help them, do so. The more you help your contacts, the more willing they'll be to help you when it's your turn to make a request. Try to do at least two or three favors for every favor you ask of a contact. That will keep your contacts happy and your network strong. A favor can be something small and simple, like sending an article or referral to a contact.

You can also help your contacts by being a matchmaker. If you know two people who can benefit each other, by all means, bring them together. And if you get a request for help that you can't meet, see if someone else in your network can get it done instead. Establishing yourself as the person who knows a lot of useful people can give you a huge boost in the eyes of your network contacts.

When you do make a request of your contacts – be it an introduction to a certain CEO or a plea for referrals – be very clear about what you need. Don't just say, “I'd like to get a job with XYZ Company, can you help?” Instead, say something like, “I'd like to connect with the CEO, the CSO, and possibly a sales manager at XYZ Company so that I can learn more about their culture and perhaps move forward with a job there.” If you want referrals, spell out exactly what you're looking for, be it small business owners with around $2 million per year in revenue, consumers with children less than five years old, or CEOs of marine manufacturing companies.

If you spell out exactly what you need you won't waste your contacts' time and goodwill, and you'll also save yourself the pain of sifting through useless leads.

As your network grows, make managing it easy by keeping things organized. If your network is becoming large enough that it's hard to keep track of everyone (which can happen very quickly if you're an active networker) you can and should break it down into smaller groups. Depending on your networking needs, you can either break your network out by type (e.g. Personal, Referral, Colleague, Prospect) or by priority. A priority breakdown would sort your contacts by their potential value to you. Keep your contacts in a database and note down every time you get in touch with each contact.

You can even set reminders so that you'll always reach out to each contact with the appropriate frequency.

Always keep your network fresh by rotating out people who no longer match your needs and cultivating new ones. For example, if an executive you've brought into your network as a prospective customer retires, don't keep soliciting him – either take him out of your network altogether or move him to a different category.