Networking can pay off if you avoid some common mistakes.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Smart Business: How to Say “Hello”
March 1, 2010