The bank customer held the door open for a female businessperson. While walking out to their cars in the parking lot, they struck up a conversation. It seems they had some interests in common. Then, the customer gave the female businessperson a business contact he suggested might be very helpful. The simple and short conversation is networking at its simplest and most valuable.
The Rules of Networking
Actually, no one has written down formal rules that are ironclad. Every situation, except for “speed dating” situations, is different. And, even with speed dating, each person has quirks and differences that make even a structured event different for all participants. Looking around a room, anyone can see people with different postures, different clothing, and different expressions on their faces. Even people in uniform look different if you look closely enough.
Forget the rules. Rules just make people stiff and formal in a way that puts off real, meaningful connections. Networking is all about connecting, so everyone needs to be a student of body language to pick up on the best way to connect with others.
Without staring, scope out the room. See if someone is awkwardly standing alone. Don’t interrupt if it turns out they are on their cellphone. If the person is open, not holding their hands crossed over their chest, make an overture and introduce yourself.
“Hi, I’m X.” is good. If they reply with their name, you can ask what they do. At some point, extend your hand and shake hands. Don’t make it a contest of strength. Firm is fine, but don’t squeeze.
Then, giving eye contact, pay attention. Let the conversation flow. Ask questions, but ones that ask for answers of more than yes or no. Once you’ve gotten to know each other a bit, ask for their business card. And, as somewhat frequently happens these days, they might prefer to give you their contact information for your cellphone. That’s even better.
After the Intros the Real Networking Begins
If you’ve found some common ground or if you have some information to share that will help them that you need to gather from your office, tell them you’ll get back with them. Do that within the next day. That proves your real interest in helping them. They will remember.
Meanwhile, as you thank them and indicate someone you know or that you must leave, when you’re out of eyesight, jot a note on their card or put a note in your phone about the question you need to answer for them and where and the date you met them. It really is simple, but if you don’t record these details, it’s amazing how fast you’ll forget.
Next Steps to Cement the Relationship
To continue the relationship building, which is really what networking is, follow up with the information they requested. Think about what they discussed with you and see if you can create some value for them from contacts or information you have. At this point, you are not pitching products or services to them unless they have expressed a real interest. There is nothing more off-putting than coming on strong with a sales pitch, because the reserve of trust you’ve started to build will evaporate.
What’s the secret? To quote an Aretha Franklin soul song, “it’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Understand who the person is and what their interests are. Don’t make it about you, but about them. Their natural curiosity will eventually lead them to ask about you. If they wallow in misery for too long until you’re uncomfortable, figure that they’re self-absorbed and you cannot connect with them that day. Maybe the next time — and note on their card what their concerns are.
Remember to respond to their comments by smiling, nodding, and reacting appropriately to what they say. Eye contact, without staring unnaturally, is an excellent skill.
Be Real, Be Yourself, and Smile
Business interactions are not meant to be torture. If the situation feels really forced and unnatural, make the best of the situation and move on. If it is your own discomfort, spend time with people you trust until you can handle a networking event with comfort. And, smile! Almost anything can be forgiven if you are sincere and smile. Multi-purpose, these approaches work for connecting with anyone at any level of an organization, client, or supplier. They’ll build your business.