By: Jeff Haden
Forget platitudes and theory. Here’s the only advice you’ll ever need to make business networking pay off.
If effective business networking is so important, why do so few people see any benefits? The problem starts with expectations.
Most people approach networking as a key driver of sales. (“Networking is like advertising… but networking is free!”) While networking can occasionally lead to a sale, if selling is your primary intent you will almost always fail because potential clients instantly recognize that your attempt to “network” is just a poorly veiled sales tactic.
But networking can work when you take the right approach. Let’s start by defining what networking really is (I promise it won’t be boring).
Here are the four basic principles of business networking:
1. Networking always starts with giving
The ultimate goal of networking is to connect with people who may be able to help you reach a particular goal: A direct sale, a referral, a contact, an endorsement, a job interview, etc. It goes without saying that when you network, you want something.
But you can’t ask for what you want–at least not at first, and maybe not ever. Forget about receiving and focus on providing. Your ultimate goal may be to receive, but your short- and medium-term focus must be on giving. That’s the only way to establish a real connection and relationship.
Focus only on what you want and you’ll be like most other people… and you’ll never make valuable connections.
2. No one cares what you need… or how badly you need it
A joint venture with a major player in your industry could transform your company. A write-up in the New York Times could generate the publicity you need to drive significant sales. An endorsement from Guy Kawasaki on his blog might kick-start your consulting business. Or maybe your start-up will soon run out of cash without a desperately needed infusion of capital.
All great reasons for you to connect with people, but no one cares. Nor should they. Your needs are your problem.
Never expect people to respond to networking efforts based on your needs. Everyone has needs. Others may feel your pain but it is in no way their responsibility to help you. People care first about how you can help them. Embrace that premise and you’ll go far.
Plus, keep in mind networking is a little like dating. The more desperate or needy you are the less likely you are to connect with someone worthwhile.
3. Good networking is highly targeted
Some people like networking events. I don’t. They’re too unfocused.
A much better approach is to identify someone you can help, determine whether they might be able to help you, and then approach them on your own terms.
Always select your targets. Then go after them. Don’t expect to find them at a networking event.
4. The higher you reach the less you should expect
Say you’re trying to network with Guy Kawasaki or Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell.
Great–get in a very long line. Half the world is actively trying to network with them. The other half is still looking for their contact information so they can try too.
Effective business networking creates a mutually beneficial relationship, with major emphasis on “mutually.” Say you’re a writer or expert or thought leader:
•What can Malcolm Gladwell offer you? Plenty: Contacts, endorsements, advice, mentoring, etc.
•What can you offer Malcolm? Nothing. Be realistic. You may believe you have something to offer him but you really don’t. (Don’t feel bad. I don’t either.)
So while you may desperately want or need to, making that worthwhile connection with your dream target will take a very long time because the right to connect is not based on need. You have to earn the right to connect.
Now let’s look at the basic steps on how to network effectively so the time you spend networking actually pays off.
Step One: Segment Your Networking Targets
First break down the people you hope to network with into three broad categories:
•Easy: Establishing a connection is unlikely to gain you much but should definitely help them.
•Medium: Establishing a mutually beneficial relationship is fairly straightforward; what you can provide and what they can provide is relatively equal.
•Reach: Establishing a connection with these folks is at the far end of possibility; you have little to offer compared to what they can provide.
We’ll use the wedding photography business as an example since it’s an industry I know a lot about. In addition to ghostwriting I’ve been a wedding photographer for years–we’ve won awards, been published in major magazines, done high profile weddings, etc. (I only mention all that to set the stage for what follows.)
In networking terms, here’s how we can segment our targets:
Easy: Local florists, cake shops, carriages, venues, wedding planners, etc. These vendors are delighted when we offer them photos or other “stuff.”
What do we get in return? Realistically not much, since couples don’t tend to ask their florist for recommendations for wedding photographers. Still, if you like to prioritize, you could put florists and cake shops at the “least potential return” end of the scale and wedding planners and reception venues at the “greatest potential return” end of the scale, since couples do occasionally ask wedding planners and venues for advice about photographers.
Medium: Sought-after venues, respected wedding planners, etc. These folks are, for want of a better way to put it, “at our level” because we tend to serve clients in the same spending demographic.