Networking can pay off if you avoid some common mistakes.

Networking has become a buzzword to describe making business contacts in a social setting. I tend to use the term “schmoozing.” Call it what you will, it’s one of the most cost-effective ways of drumming up business – no small consideration in these hard times.

Most of you reading this probably do a fair amount of networking via participation in trade associations, chambers of commerce and social service clubs such as Rotary, Optimists, Lions, etc. Like everything else, some people are better at it than others.

Simply chitchatting over cocktails is not networking; that’s hanging out. While it may make for an enjoyable evening, it usually doesn’t result in productive business leads unless you eliminate some common mistakes, as follows:

Stray from your tribe. Most people attending business/social functions spend most of their time hanging out with friends and co-workers – even tipping chairs forward at a dining table to save spots for their buddies. Strangers feel unwelcome intruding on these cliques.

You can hang out with friends at any time. When a business networking opportunity presents itself, force yourself to stray from your “tribe” and mingle with people you don’t know. When it comes time for lunch or dinner, make it a point to sit at a table full of strangers. Tell others in your company to spread out as well to maximize the chance of making new contacts.

Breaking away from cohorts does not come easy to people who are shy or socially awkward. But it’s the whole point of networking.

Sometimes it’s not necessarily shyness that causes people to be aloof. It may stem from cliques that form within certain groups.

I recall an evening about a dozen years ago when I was recruited as a dinner speaker for a meeting of a local trade association in a distant city. The officer who recruited me to speak was only a casual acquaintance. When I arrived at the meeting site, he spent a moment greeting me, then spent the rest of the evening hanging out with buddies to whom he never bothered to introduce me; nobody else in the association made an effort to keep me company. Even though these folks thought enough of me to pay my travel expenses and a small speaking fee, I was left alone during cocktail hour, so I struck up conversation with another fellow whom I noticed standing off by himself. Turns out that he was a prospective member attending his first meeting and knew nobody there. So I led him to the one person I knew and introduced them.

What’s wrong with this picture when an outsider has to introduce a prospective member to an officer of a trade association! Ironically, when the association officers talked business preceding my trip to the podium, the number one topic was an urgent need for more membership recruitment.

This kind of behavior is a main reason why so many trade associations are starving for members. If you are involved with a trade group, be on guard against cliques and aloofness. Well-run organizations assign chaperones from among the leadership to every first-time attendee. These mentors introduce the newcomer to other people in the group, and make sure they have someone to talk to and sit with at meals throughout the event.

Pick targets. Prior to attending any networking event, set a goal for yourself of getting to know at least one person of influence who you’ve never met or know only casually. Seek out these persons in the crowd and make conversation with them. When you see an empty glass in their hand, volunteer a trip to the bar to get them another drink. If you’re new to a group, ask whoever recruited you to point out VIPs you should get to know.

Don’t brush off the “little” people. Some folks may wield very little business influence, and you don’t want to waste the entire evening talking to them. But avoid being abrupt and impolite in breaking off conversations. At one level, this simply is common courtesy, but it also entails considerable business logic. That lowly bank teller could be the son-in-law of the bank president, and in a few years, may be the head of commercial lending. Try to leave everyone with a good impression of you.

Be especially deferential to people who work as secretaries or administrative assistants to important VIPs. They are gatekeepers who control access to the boss, and befriending them can be even more productive than going straight to the big shot.

Turn shyness to your advantage. Shy personalities can turn this drawback into an advantage by being a good listener. Hang out at the edge of conversations between other parties, and listen carefully to what they’re talking about. Never interrupt someone who’s speaking, but when an opening presents itself, break in with the one subject a VIP always will find fascinating – himself/herself. Ask open-ended and feel-good questions as conversation starters, such as: How long have you been in business? How did you get started? What do you enjoy most about your work? What are the biggest problems you face in business? Who are your best customers?

If you talk enough about the other party, sooner or later that person is apt to start inquiring about you and your business. But avoid talking about yourself until then. Perverse as it may seem, getting them to talk about themselves is the best way to get them to think of you as an interesting person.

When you do get a chance to speak, steer clear of politics, religion and any other controversial topics that are more likely to close doors rather than open them to you. If they do ask about your business, keep it brief. Cocktail conversations are not the place to narrate your entire business history and philosophy. That’s when VIPs’ eyes glaze over, and they start looking over your shoulder for other people to make conversation with.

Be prepared with what’s known as an “elevator speech.” This is a concise statement of who you are and what you do that can be delivered in about 20 seconds – the amount of time it takes for an elevator to go between floors. (Mine is: “I’m a writer and editor specializing in the construction trades.”) The objective is to make a first impression on the person of influence. If you do this well, it can lead to more substantive business meetings down the road where you can fill in whatever details are required.

Position yourself by the entrance. In large gatherings, it’s easy to miss people you want to see. The best way to ensure contact with people you are anxious to meet is to hang out near the main entrance. Not everyone makes it to every corner of a room, but they all must pass through the entryway.

Be prepared and presentable. Bus-iness casual is acceptable for most occasions, but it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed. When in doubt, wear a tie and jacket, or place a call to the meeting sponsors to ask what would be appropriate dress for the event.

Have your business cards in a convenient pocket so you don’t have to be fumbling around for them. Bring along a small notebook and pen to jot down notes of important things people say to you.

Collect business cards. Don’t leave home without your own, but it’s more important to collect business cards than to pass out yours. You can’t control what other people do with yours, and more often than not, they’ll never look at it again. But once you obtain a card from a mover and shaker, you have it in your power to follow up with further contacts.

For instance, you can send a handwritten note the next day along the lines of, “It was nice meeting you. If I can ever refer business your way, I certainly will.” And, you can keep in touch with the person from time to time by sending clippings of newspaper and magazine articles that relate to their interests.

Best of all, you can refer people to them when the opportunity arises. And that’s likely to start them referring people to you.

Be sure to follow up with these contacts. Put the contact information in your database as soon as possible, while it’s fresh in mind. Then look for opportunities to keep in touch. 
ND