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Networking without the Work

by Eileen Parzek

For the first half of my entrepreneurial life, I had such an allergy to “schmooze” that the idea of networking was just unbearable. But, I have learned a lot, since, about how to make it work and in doing so, I’ve impacted my business in a myriad of ways. So I would like to share my perspective on it, in hopes that it might spur some of you to leave your SOHO hiding spot, too.

Simply put, the best way to approach networking is as a way to build relationships. My approach is slightly unorthodox, but it works – today, the vast majority of my business comes from networking and referrals.

Before you enter the networking fray, think about the types of relationships you would like to build for your business network. This could mean determining a type of person or industries that would be a natural fit with yours, or a source for referral business. Sometimes the best places to network are not obvious – it might be a place where no one else does what you do, but many attendees know someone who needs what you do.

You should also consider networking with people you want to be like, or you respect. This can be important for referral business, as well as for developing a mentoring relationship with people who have gone before you. So don’t waste your time at events that can’t possibly introduce you to people you would like or ever do business with!

Once you get out there, simply be yourself, be friendly, and positive. Go out there expecting to make new acquaintances, not hunting for business. I’m often surprised at how tense and desperate people seem at networking events, making me want to grab them by the corners of their suits and say “Relax! It’s not that important!”

Let your enthusiasm for your business bubble out of you in such a way that people cannot help but wonder about you. Be genuine and ask sincere questions of the people you meet, and learn about them. Try not to talk about yourself too much – if you do this right, they will ask you questions, but keep it short and return to what they do. People just love it when you are interested in them, and they remember that! I don’t mean be fake about it - if you really don’t care about other people and what they do, then it will come across in networking and you might better off stay home, after all.

Learn to listen and pay attention to what people say, without your mind racing ahead on what you will say next. This is one of my challenges – my brain is usually whirling a mile ahead of my mouth, so if I can do it, anyone can! It really just amounts to acknowledging that networking is not about YOU, it is about the people you are meeting. You want to learn about them, be curious and interested, and offer information freely and generously that will help THEM.

To do that, come mentally prepared. If you are entering a networking event for a group in a particular industry, do some research before hand on how you could help people in that group. Find out what their particular needs or worries or “pain” is, and have some good information or data stored away in your head for conversation material. You might not use it, but knowing it can’t hurt!

Keep in mind that the quality of the connection is much more important than the quantity. I know that many people will disagree with me on this, but I would rather spend the entire evening talking to one person with whom I ‘click’ than collect a pocket full of cards that I can’t match up to faces.

Networking is very often a long term proposition – I usually have to cross paths with the same folks 2-3 times before they start calling about if I can help them or someone in their network.

Networking never ends when you leave the event. In fact, it just begins and that is what many people don’t realize. I rarely hear from the people I meet at events, and often wonder why they bothered to come? Always follow up with the people you met. If it was just a casual connection, without a clear direction on future relationships, send an email that says it was a pleasure to meet them at the event, and you look forward to crossing paths in the future. Put your contact information in the email – who knows, they might still want to see what it is you do, even if you did only have a brief exchange.

If the potential for future relationship is greater, an email or even a phone call is in order. If it is appropriate, set up a time to get together with that person for coffee or lunch, to talk more without the din of the crowd. Offer to send more information on what you do and ask that they do the same, so you can flesh out your understanding of their business. The best way to develop networking relationships is by reciprocity – telling someone that you would like to keep information stored away on them, so that you can refer business is usually met with an offer to do the same.

Make sure you also have a good relationship management process in place, too. Save the information on the people you meet, that you think there might be future potential for, and categorize them so you can find the information later.

I met a female lawyer at a recent event. We chatted for some time, had some good laughs, found a couple of common denominators, and exchanged business cards. I loved her energy and attitude, and she was interested enough in my business for my natural enthusiasm to bubble forth. I knew this was someone to weave into my relationship-network. So, shortly after, I wrote her an email, and set up lunch to discuss how we might help each other. As it happens, she works with many small business start ups, which would benefit from my services. And I frequently run across business owners who need an attorney. Going forward, my relationship-management systems will nudge me to follow up with her and perhaps do lunch occasionally, and I will periodically send her tidbits of information that might help her business.

The truth is she is the only person I really talked to at that event filled with 100+ business people, and it was worth every minute. Networking really isn’t so bad when you relax and focus the objective on just building one new relationship with someone you might sincerely like, respect and want to do business with.

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About the Author:

Eileen Parzek is a graphic designer and writer providing marketing and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, SOHO It Goes! specializes in helping big thinking small businesses market and grow with technology.

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