Business Networking. Do It the Right Way.
By: Neifor B. Acosta, AABC Secretary of the Board
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “networking” as “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically, the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” 1 [emphasis added] The two operative words in this definition are “exchange” and “cultivation” because without either of these important elements, it would be impossible to grow your network and derive its benefits. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; however, most people approach networking as simply the exchange of information part. Ineffective networkers fail to follow through with the “cultivation” part. People often attend networking events with the idea that they will walk out with a handful of clients – well hate to tell you — business cards are not clients. Leads they may be, but there is still much work to do before you can even begin to consider yourself on the path towards billing. Business relationships are based on trust and trust takes time to build.
Practice Makes Perfect
Proper networking requires some preliminary thought of what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want to find friends with like-minded interests — join a social network. If you want to solely find clients — advertise. If you want to meet individuals that can help you with business goals, then find a business network. Swim in waters where the fish you want to meet also swim. Once there, it’s up to you to make yourself known. Have a short (1 minute max) recitation of who you are and what you do. Yes, your “elevator pitch.” This first encounter must leave a good impression on the listener as to who you are and what you do that brings value to the prospective relationship. It should come across very natural, not like a sales pitch. It must be part of your essence. Just think, how would you respond if someone asked you about where you live or where you were born? Your answer would be very natural indeed. These questions are so simple and fundamental to your being that any answer you give simply cannot come across as forced. That’s how your “elevator pitch” should sound. And when you say it with such surety, it can only be perceived as genuine; a seed for cultivation. This takes practice. The more you do it, the more it becomes second nature. Organizations like the Amsterdam American Business Club offer a great way to practice your elevator pitch and to explore and expand your business network.
How often do you follow-up with individuals you meet at a networking function? And no…sending a simple LinkedIn connect request doesn’t count! The follow-up is probably one of the least practiced parts of networking. This is how you begin to “cultivate” a productive relationship. At the very least, a follow-up should convey gratitude for making an acquaintance. It demonstrates professional courtesy and sets you up for a future encounter. If you’re interested in that person’s business or background, then nothing should dissuade you from asking to meet at a convenient place/time to continue a discussion about mutually beneficial business interests. This one-on-one time is much more effective to determine if there is a mutual benefit to your business networking goals. Most real “networking” occurs after the event.
Let’s talk about LinkedIn for a moment. There is no question that LinkedIn is a valuable tool to connect and exchange information with people in and out of your network. From a networking perspective, LinkedIn is not often used as intended. People seem to equate LinkedIn to a virtual business card. For starters, one of the biggest mistakes people make when connecting with someone via LinkedIn is that they fail to include a personal message. How often have you received a request
to connect from someone you met at a networking gathering that does not make any mention of why the person wishes to connect or even a brief salutation expressing gratitude for having made an acquaintance? This is even worse when the invitation is coming from someone you have never even met! Would you send a cover letter to someone that simply says, “Hi, I’d like to add you to my personal network?” Hopefully not. Instead, use that initial communication as a way to begin building rapport with this new person in your network. LinkedIn is a powerful professional social media platform that allows you to convey details about your professional life. Don’t use it simply as a way to collect as many invitations as possible. Think about that next time you send an invitation request.
Bring Value to Your Network
Final thoughts. Networking should be an opportunity to learn something about others in the group you are networking with and maybe even learn a bit more about yourself. If you are in a business networking group, find out about similar entrepreneurial stories that can help your efforts. Inquire about tactics or strategies used by others to find and retain clients. Share ideas about your own business aspirations and challenges. Or maybe talk about how you were able to successfully assist your clients overcome their own business challenges. All of these things demonstrate a passion for your purpose that should help cultivate (there’s that word again) trust, which in time leads to direct business, indirect referrals and possibly even ideas to help you on your way. The AABC exists to foster such networking opportunities for business minded individuals. It is more than just a pool of prospective clients. Our members consist of a variety of professional profiles — from entrepreneurs to CEOs – that can bring value to your business needs. Come take advantage and contribute to this network. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, ask not what your network can do for you — ask what you can do for your network. After all, this is what we should do for our own prospective clients.
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