Networking 111

By Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO iVIBES

Last week, we talked about the importance of networking and some of the more common networking styles people use. Here, I just want to explain how to network effectively, with a few pointers that can help you take your career or your business to the next level.

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Set a Target

The first thing you'll need to do is come up with a profile of your target client (we'll just use client here to keep things simple, but since this networking advice is applicable for job seekers as well as entrepreneurs, client could refer to a company that you want to work for/do business with, or an individual who might be your ideal employer/customer).

Just like you come up with an avatar or customer profile when crafting a marketing strategy, you will need to do the same to make your networking efforts effective. Why? Because if you don't have a clear idea of with whom you want to network, your efforts could lead you on a wild goose chase because you haven't been specific enough.

Jot down specific demographic information about your target client - age, educational background, achievements, industry, market influence, etc. - and then try to come up with a list of specific people or companies that fit the profile. You might need to refine some of the attributes you've identified if you can't find at least a close match with existing people or businesses, but if you have set specific goals for the type of success you want to achieve, you shouldn't be too far off the mark.

For example, let's say you've got an education consultancy, you might set a target that looks like this: "My company does consulting in the education industry. We have a variety of solutions to help schools perform better so that students learn more. I want to get connected to poor-performing international schools in developing markets that have declining enrollment numbers over the past 3-5 years."

Or maybe you're a job seeker who says, "I'm really into technology. I have a computer science degree from an average university, and I'm having a hard time breaking into the corporate world. I want to find a tech startup that will let me develop my programming skills as a junior level coder, and I want the company to support me as I continue my education by acquiring such and such certifications to help me add value to the company and boost my career, at the same time."

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Due Diligence

After you've come up with a profile and matched it to specific people or companies, you'll need to start doing your research. The good news is that in today's age of internet connectivity, abundant information on most companies and people is only a few keystrokes away.

Most people use some form of social media nowadays, and any major company worth its salt certainly will. Let's say you want to connect with a particular individual who could introduce you to your target client, or perhaps you have the opportunity to connect with the client directly. Start by searching for the client on LinkedIn, particularly if the client is recognized as an industry leader/expert/influencer. A LinkedIn profile will give you good background information about your client in professional terms - education, prior experience, languages, endorsed skills (for people); and you can find out about a company in general terms, along with available jobs and employees' LinkedIn profiles.

In addition, Facebook and Instagram are great sources of information to learn more about what people do when they're not at work. This type of information can go a long way towards helping you find more personal ways to connect with your client. For example, I don't have either platform for personal use, but if someone did enough background research about me to know that the NFL's best franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is my favorite team, and he approached me by starting a conversation about my boys, I'd at least be willing to give a guy 15 minutes of my time.

After you've gathered your research, you have to be judicious about information flow. What I mean is that you can't start off like a lunatic by spilling your guts about all the information you've gathered about your client. In the best case scenario, you'll let the conversation grow organically and use about 80% of the conversation revolve around your common interests from your client's perspective before speaking about yourself. As a matter of fact, it's ideal if the client interjects 15 minutes into the dialogue to ask you what you do. At this point, if you have an appropriate amount of schmoozer in you, you can connect the dots for the client to show that your unique value proposition aligns neatly with a need or value they have, and based upon your research, you've identified a great fit. But remember, you have to be smooth, or you're just going to come off looking like a creep.

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'Tis Better to Give

There's an old saying: you catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. Networking, in its essence, is all about building relationships, and it's always easier to build relationships with people when you make them feel important. Giving gifts as an ethical bribe can go a long way towards building relationships.

When you're doing your research on your client or talking to a gatekeeper (the person who can give you access to your client), pay attention to the seemingly minor details that can give you clues about things that are meaningful to them. If you can arrange a gift that is somewhat personal, but not so personal that it's inappropriate, this will show that you've taken a sincere interest in developing the relationship. More importantly, this will also have a subtle psychological effect of making them feel obligated to do something nice for you without you having to ask directly.

For example, if you're working on building a relationship with a person from Philadelphia, and you know they happen to be a huge Eagles fan, you might get an autographed Eagles jersey and mention how great the team's Super Bowl win was for the city. Other examples of clues you might pick up on for the purpose of giving gifts might be a favorite author or a professional event the client or gatekeeper would like to attend. Gifting them a book by their favorite author (either a classic or the latest, not a random book by the author) or tickets to the event will suggest to the client that you listen well and have taken a keen interest in the relationship. 

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Be an Expert

Look, everyone wants to be the best at what they do, and people who are the best in their respective fields like to associate with people who are on the same level. One of the easiest things you can do to make networking more effective is to become an expert in your field. I know what you're thinking - "This is going to take some time." You're right. Networking is about relationship building, not speed dating. Think about networking as a marathon, not a sprint. Depending on how hard you work at it and the resources available to you to learn from, you might achieve this aim in a year or two. It doesn't necessarily take earning a college degree to reach expert level (in fact, a person could conceivably graduate from Wharton and still be an idiot), but immersing yourself in intensive short courses could give you the technical know how you need to break into expert territory.

I know most people are not doing this anymore, but start reading books. Actual, factual books about your industry. Attend seminars and any training sessions that take place within a reasonable distance from your location. As you start to acquire information about your industry, start sharing your knowledge - for free. Start connecting with people who are in the same industry and ask them what challenges they're facing in their business and how you might be able to help. Most people will say that they're doing fine and don't need any support, but for the 10-15% that express a concern, position yourself to help them as fast as possible. Gather information about the issues they're facing and offer a handful of semi-specific solutions for free. If they find you advice helpful, you'll at least get a thank you, but referrals are also a possible outcome.

The more people that you can help in this fashion (at no or minimal cost) the faster your brand image will be enhanced because you will gain a reputation for adding value and being knowledgeable about your field. No matter what you spend on marketing campaigns, nothing beats having credible endorsements building you up, and people who've benefitted from your expert knowledge are generally happy to give you a convincing referral. This can then position you to be sought after for speaking engagements, public presentations, and paid consulting work - all crucial elements for eventually attracting the attention of your target clients. 

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Pump the Brakes

One of the biggest networking mistakes people make is asking for favors too soon. If you're inexperienced, you might not be able to tell at what point in the development of the relationship you should ask for what you want. Remember, networking is about building relationships, so if you start asking for things too early, it's possible that you might get what you ask for on occasion, but you won't develop the long-term relationships that will facilitate the continued growth and development of your career or business.

In the early stages of the relationship, make focus on being as helpful as possible without asking for anything at all. After the relationship has developed far enough, your client will eventually ask (assuming you have provided enough value to them) what they can do for you. Remember, there's a psychological play here - unless you're dealing with people who are morally bankrupt or extremely self-centered, people will eventually feel obliged to return a favor, and when they do, you'll know. Whenever the time comes and they ask how they can be of help to you, present a value proposition instead of a favor request.

For example, if you're speaking to a gatekeeper, you might say something like this: "Well so-and-so, that's really generous of you. I wasn't really expecting you to make me an offer. However, I've been working on a solution that does such-and-such, and it would be great if you could introduce me to so-and-so because I think this solution could really be great for their business." On the other hand, if you're speaking directly to your target client, you might say something along the lines of this: "Really? Wow, that's great. I appreciate your offer. You know, as a matter of fact, I have something that might be of interest to you. Do you mind if I present it to you? See, I know that one of the challenges you're facing is such-and-such, and I happen to have a couple of solutions for this issue that I've used in other places, and they've always been successful. If you wouldn't mind, I'd really like the opportunity to deliver these solutions for you, too."

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Be Authentic

Remember when you were in high school and you had a 'friend' who acted like they really had your back, but later you found out they weren't exactly who you thought they were? It put a strain on your friendship, if you even remained friends after that, right? It's the same in networking. Because we're building relationships, you have to be yourself. Of course, people do evolve over time, refining parts of themselves, but the core of an individual basically remains the same. If you're a smooth schmoozer, use it to your advantage, but don't try to come off Big Willie Style, if that's not who you really are. Eventually, you'll be exposed, and this could sabotage all of your efforts in one fell swoop. Authenticity is the key to building trust, and without it, your career trajectory will flatline and your business won't grow.

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There's no one-size-fits-all prescription for building effective relationships, but a number of my clients have used these guidelines successfully. As it is with managing any type of relationship, the most important consideration is what you bring to the table. If you offer tangible value to your clients and you're authentic while doing so, achieving your career or entrepreneurial aims is definitely within your reach.

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