In the current job market, it is not only who you are, even who you know but who knows you. An increasing number of hires are done through referrals and recommendations. It reasons that networking is an indispensable survival skill for career success. Yet for the uninitiated, business networking events can be downright intimidating. In this article, I share proven techniques for novices to begin networking with flair.
Define your goal
Fail to plan and you plan to fail. For each event you attend, define your purpose. Are you looking for new prospects to expand your clientele? Are you looking to refer someone you know to a potential job opening? How many new people would you aim to meet by the end of the event?
Look the part
From my 13 years of running a networking organisation in Singapore, I can spot an amateur in the room from his or her attire. While it’s not necessary to invest in a swanky wardrobe of branded suits, it is important to pay attention to grooming and social graces. For ladies, did lipstick find its way to your teeth? For guys, does your belt match the colour of your shoes? If I am being introduced to a promising business owner whose suit has creases, I would think twice about referring prospects to him or her. To look polished at all times, I recommend picking out every item of your attire the night before. If necessary, get professional advice from an image consultant.
Networking opportunities are everywhere, so be prepared. Place name cards in a neat name card holder instead of rummaging through your bag for them. Since the name card is an extension of the person handing it out, accept it respectfully and then study it carefully. Use this opportunity to ask questions pertaining to the prospect’s job. In some cultures, it is considered impolite to accept name cards with the left hand only. Make notes on the back of the cards to reinforce your memory of this person as soon as possible.
Breaking the ice
Ice-breakers are an important skill to master. The trick to getting the conversation going is to be interested in the other person. Many novices make the blunder of talking a mile a minute, mostly about themselves. In the workshops I run, I teach participants to focus on the other party by asking him or her friendly questions. The questions should not be too personal in nature. Contentious topics to steer clear include religion, sexuality and political divides. Remember that you are trying to find commonalities with the person. Spend enough time with each person such that you are able to establish a trusting bond. This trust is what future transactions will be based on.
I have observed amateurs who think they are being productive when they hurry around the room to distribute their name cards. My guess is that their cards will end up at the bottom of the pile, if not in the trash. Distributing name cards just to get contacts in exchange is prospecting, not networking.
Another common faux pas is jumping to a sales pitch too early in the conversation. Take the longer-term view instead and commit to developing a relationship. Be open-minded, genuine and helpful. Try to see how you can add value to the people you connect with. That way, they will have a reason to reciprocate.
What do you do?
I’ve often been asked to advice on how best to respond to the perennial favorite question, “What do you do?” Generally, this is an invitation to introduce your profession in some detail. Some business books have termed it “the elevator pitch”. It’s ideal to keep it between 15-30 seconds. Briefly mention what you do, who you help and the key benefits of your product or service. It is useful to practice this before a networking event and fine-tune it afterwards based on the feedback you received. As you become more skilled at it, you can jazz it up or dress it down according to your personality.
Exit with grace
Networking differs from making friends in that you have to circulate instead of chit-chatting with one person you like throughout the event. This can be executed politely and smoothly. Some lines I like to use: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m monopolizing you. It’s been very nice talking to you. If you’ll excuse me, there’s someone I’d like to say hi to. Let’s catch up over coffee next week.
Amateurs think that the networking process ends when the last name card has been exchanged. Far from it! I always make it a point to schedule an hour the morning after the networking event to follow up with all my contacts. Where appropriate, I initiate further contact, such as scheduling a second meeting over lunch or coffee. It reflects professionalism and sincerity. This is how meaningful relationships are solidified.
In conclusion, networking is a marketing activity that emphasises relationships. In business, as in life in general, it is imperative to follow the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you.