You might be one of those people who think they don’t need a guide to networking. But it has changed a lot over the last few years, and you might be struggling to keep up.
Or perhaps you don’t think you need help because you love meeting people, talking about your company, and interacting with peers. Big networking events might be something you actually look forward to instead of dread.
If so, lucky you! But don’t leave yet; you still want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your networking efforts.
Most of us (myself included!) have only done it begrudgingly. But we can put that attitude behind us because it’s easier and more adaptable than ever.
Between a global pandemic and huge strides in technology, networking just isn’t the same as it used to be. And whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner who doesn’t know where to start, there’s always room for improvement.
This guide will help you improve your networking skills no matter how long you’ve been doing it or how much you love or hate it.
Networking Occurs in Many Forms
Imagine this: You walk into a coffee shop and look around. You have a vague idea of who you’re looking for, but being wrong would be embarrassing. So you proceed carefully.
You think you see the right woman. “Jennifer?” you ask. She nods, you shake hands, and then you sit down to get acquainted. The two of you talk for an hour or so, and then you leave after exchanging pleasantries and agreeing on when you’ll follow-up.
This scenario might sound like a blind date, but it isn’t; this is a networking meeting.
Networking happens in coffee shops, bars, huge events, seminars, and online.
Any time you meet somebody that could help you in your business, that’s networking.
Is Networking Important?
If you are a freelancer, starting a side hustle, or on your way toward becoming an entrepreneur, you need to get the word out.
Waiting for business to find you is a surefire way to end up crawling back to your old job. Nobody wants to do that.
Networking is the best way to build connections that eventually lead to your business’s success.
- You’ll meet people who can give you actionable advice for maintaining and scaling.
- You’ll find business owners who don’t do what you do (or do it for a much different price) and will eagerly send clients your way.
- Some of the people you meet will become your best clients.
- You might even meet investors or future partners.
This one simple action can lead to you meeting everybody you ever needed to know to get your business off the ground and make it grow beyond what you thought possible.
So yes, networking is important, but only if you know how to do it. Otherwise, you’re just collecting business cards and overfilling your contact list.
Knowing these simple networking tips will make it much more approachable, though, so don’t worry!
Getting Started in Networking
Most people start with a minimal network, usually just friends and coworkers.
When it’s time to go out on your own or grow your business, you’ll probably need to know more people. But before you start randomly reaching out to people, you need to develop clear goals and a plan.
Your first goal is to figure out who you want to meet.
Sure, you’ll probably develop relationships with people who can help in various ways. But what is your primary goal for growing your network? Do you want to meet potential clients, referral partners, business partners, or industry leaders?
Knowing that answer will drive the kind of networking you need to do.
For instance, if you’re looking for investors and industry leaders, you should attend every seminar, convention, and networking event in your industry that you can.
Or, if you’re trying to grow your pipeline with leads, you could start an outreach campaign on LinkedIn or other social media. (For a brief but thorough guide on how to network on LinkedIn, check out my ebook, Endless Referrals.)
Other Networking Goals
Okay, you know who you want to meet. And you have an idea of how to meet them. Now what?
Well, you have to develop a few more goals.
These goals will evolve after gathering data on how your networking practice is working. You might need to increase the number of people you meet in a week, or maybe your goals aren’t as reasonable as you hoped.
But if you start with SMART goals, you’re on the right track. Some targets you might consider are:
- how large your network needs to be to see results,
- how often you should attempt to make new connections and keep up with current ones,
- and how your networking connections will be mutually beneficial.
Once you have a basic plan and a place to start, this guide to networking will make sure you do it the right way.
Networking in 7 Easy Tips
If meeting new people isn’t your thing, there are some simple things to consider.
Many of these tips also apply to your sales conversations, which you will also need to have. It’s all about communication, which should be the backbone of the best sales method for your personality type and business.
And don’t worry, the more networking meetings you have, the better you get. Consistent practice in anything makes you better.
You are not selling; you’re forming a relationship
This isn’t a sales call; it’s an opportunity to form a relationship with someone who will eventually (hopefully!) help you.
Whether you’re trying to develop referral partnerships or find investors, don’t offer your pitch until it makes sense or they ask for one.
If you start asking discovery questions, offering advice, or even worse, talking about your services, STOP. It can be hard to turn the need to sell off, but the person will be less willing to keep the relationship going if you don’t.
Get to know each other, and don’t just talk business
Much like with the first one, this can be tricky. While you want to have a relationship, it’s still one based on business.
But it’s essential to build up at least some personal connection as well.
You’ll both remember each other more, and that personal connection will lead to a more pleasant, familiar memory when they’re thinking about possible referrals or investment opportunities. If you need their advice, they’ll be much happier to give it to somebody they genuinely like and respect.
Try to spend the first 15-20 minutes just getting to know each other: hobbies, family, passions, weekend activities—you know, friendly conversation. It will strengthen the relationship and give you topics to mention when you follow up with them later.
“Talk less, smile more.”
Aaron Burr may have been Hamilton’s (debatable) villain, but he’s right about this.
Just like with any conversation, make sure you’re practicing active listening during your networking meetings. Resist the instinct to be transactional.
Remember that a conversation is a two-way street; you don’t want that person to leave thinking you dominated the conversation.
After getting to know each other, talk about their business. Ask how you can help them, but not in a “what can I sell you” kind of way. Find out what type of networking partner they need. Just like a conversation, referrals go both ways. If you’re not reciprocating, you’ll get dropped one by one.
Block out your calendar
Living out of your calendar and time blocking helps most people be as productive as possible. Networking is no different.
Setting expectations around time is good for you and your networking partner. You’ll hit your goals more reliably, and everybody will have better expectations for when you’re available.
It’s also beneficial to block out time each week for sending introductions and meeting requests.
When you’re sending networking requests or meeting plans to somebody, use a tool like Book Like a Boss so that they can book time according to your schedule. They’ll have the freedom to choose a time that works for them, and you won’t feel obligated to scramble for a time that you don’t have.
Nurture the relationship
Just like with your clients, follow-up is crucial.
Sometimes it will take multiple meetings or conversations before they think about people to refer to you. Or they might make referrals quickly, but then they start to drop off if it’s been a while since you’ve chatted.
And as stated above, make sure you’re referring people to them whenever you can.
Buy the drinks!
You might think this only applies to in-person meetings, but if you’re creative, it doesn’t have to.
If they don’t want to meet at a coffee shop or bar or live too far away for a face-to-face, send them a gift card for Favor or Uber Eats. You don’t have to do it every time you talk, but that small gesture will stick with them.
Even on Zoom, sharing a beer, coffee, or kombucha can help break the ice and create a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere for your conversation.
If you are meeting in person, pick up the check, at least the first time.
Think of this as a tax you pay to keep your business running. If you invite somebody out for coffee or a beer, you should pay. Some people might feel uncomfortable or give you a little pushback. Just respond with a smile and say, “next time, you can pay.” That’ll usually make them feel better about it.
Don’t forget your goal
While your primary focus, especially in the first one or two meetings, is building a relationship, it’s important not to end your networking meeting until you make “an ask.”
If you’re looking for referrals, let them know who your best ones would be, and ask if they know anybody. (Endless Referrals provides comfortable prompts and written templates to make these requests a little easier.)
If you’re trying to fill your pipeline, steer the conversation toward how you might be able to help them. Once you’ve established some rapport and trust, let them know what your best clients struggle with and how you’ve solved their issues.
Or, if you want to make connections with peers, investors, or mentors, start talking about where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Then ask them questions about how they got where they are.
A Guide to Networking for Anybody
While networking can help you create long-lasting partnerships and a more successful business, remember it is a long game. It could take months before you start closing deals from referrals or building a large enough pipeline.
But you have to stick with it because it DOES WORK.
The pandemic didn’t take away the importance of networking. It just shifted from in-person to online.
Great networking can absolutely happen on Zoom or in DMs. But maybe you don’t know how to create social content that attracts new connections, or you don’t have time to send dozens of cold messages.
If you’re passionate about what you’re doing or want to be doing soon, you can still be a fantastic networker, even if you’re the most introverted person on the planet.
Start with coworkers, fellow college students, professors, or former bosses and work out from there. Find out where people in your industry are meeting, and just be present first.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to go out there and do it.
You’re not the only person out there looking for connections. Hopefully, having this networking guide might make it a little easier to find each other.