Business networking is a useful life skill whether you work for yourself, are looking for a job or want to enhance a corporate career. Networking is about establishing relationships with people who can help you. These people include potential clients, influencers who will promote your business and refer good clients to you or mentors who can help you advance your career. Here is the what, where, how and why of successful business networking.
Before you begin networking
Business cards are an essential tool for promoting your business or career. If you work for a company, business cards are usually provided. If you work for yourself or are looking for a job, you will need to get them made. Quality cards (and templates for designing them) are available through any local print shop or an online service such as Vistaprint. Here are the important design features of a good business card:
- Attractive and easy to read. Use a standard size 2 x 3.5-inch business card. Use a font type and size that is easy to read. Use color to help your business card stand out; this can be as simple as a color bar across the top or bottom of the card. Use quality card stock; a flimsy card does not make a good impression. If you have a website, design the business card so that it is consistent with its look and feel.
- Include essential information. State the name of the business prominently on the business card (or your full name if you are a job seeker). Add a tagline or unique selling proposition that describes what you do (for example, “Expert Business Tax Returns,” “Residential Plumbing Remodels and Repairs,” or “Award-Winning Web Design”). If you are a job seeker, include your key career objectives (one to three words each), which can be listed on the front or back of the card. Essential contact information includes an email address, phone number and business website URL (or an online resume if you are a job seeker).
- Optional information. Without looking cluttered, you may wish to include other forms of contact on your business card, such as a mailing address, direct line or cell number, fax number, or other useful information — perhaps a Twitter handle, LinkedIn profile, or Facebook page.
- Optional photo. A photo can increase your chance of being remembered. However, it is more accepted and more useful for some positions than others. For example, real estate agents may find it helpful, but restaurant owners may not. If you include a photo, be sure it is professional (not candid) and looks like you.
- Optional offer. To encourage a connection, offer something of value, such as a list of tips they can find on your website for something related to your business (for example, a tax preparation checklist, plumbing repairs homeowners can do themselves to save money, or elements of good website design). The offer can be printed on the back of the card.
When and where to start
Look for groups relevant to your goals and capabilities. Consider professional groups as well as community organizations that interest you. People outside of your industry can be important networking contacts, so think outside the box.
- In-person. Network in-person at events such as professional association meetings and mixers, business conventions and conferences, industry trade shows, social and community events, civic and political organizations, PTA meetings, or even at the grocery store. Always be prepared to talk about your business should the opportunity arise.
- Online. Don’t overlook the opportunity to network online as a commenter on websites or social media, as a participant in discussion forums (such as LinkedIn groups), with commenters on your business website, or to subscribers via a company or industry newsletter that you publish.
Tips for effective business networking
The goal of networking is to make connections and build relationships — not to exchange business cards with as many people as possible. Think quality, not quantity. Building relationships is the more strategic approach that nets better results than simply handing out a business card to anyone and everyone.
- Develop a good “elevator” speech. Describe your business in the time it takes to travel one floor in an elevator (10-30 seconds). In one or two sentences, state the name of your business, what you do and what makes you better than any competitor. If you are a job seeker, state your name, your career objective and what sets you apart from other job seekers in the same industry. For an effective speech, choose short, easy to understand words. Be authentic and avoid jargon or buzzwords. Tell your story but don’t oversell. Make your speech interesting to encourage the listener to ask questions.
- Ask open-ended questions. When meeting people for the first time, ask them questions that begin with who, what, where, when, why or how — which will require more than a “yes” or “no” response. Getting the other person talking is also a great thing to do if you are shy or new to networking. Put the focus on them to feel more at ease.
- Seek to understand. Remember that the goal of networking is to develop relationships. So find out about the other person. Not every person you meet will lead to a connection. To discover useful connections, ask more questions to find out what the other person needs.
- Be a good resource to others. To make and keep connections, offer suggestions and ideas about their business, give referrals or recommend organizations for them to join.
- How to make a connection. Whenever you meet someone that you would like to build a relationship with, move the conversation along and keep the ball in your court to follow up. Ask for their business card, and ask them if you may contact them (and find out if they prefer email or phone). Be sure to follow-up within three days.
- When to exchange cards. At meetings, exchange cards with everyone before the meeting begins. At networking events don’t hand your card out, wait until someone asks for it or ask for theirs first. When asked for your card, be sure to return the favor and ask for theirs. If you are in a group, do not ask for one person’s business card; either exchange cards with everyone, or wait until you can interact one-on-one with the person whose card you really want.
- Treat business cards with respect. Look at the person’s business card when accepting it, refer to it while you continue your discussion, and place it in a business card holder or other secure place.
- Making notes on cards. If you need to make a note during a networking event, use your cellphone, a small notepad or your business card — not someone else’s card. It’s considered rude to write on another person’s business card because you are treating it as scrap paper. However, after you step away from the conversation, you can jot down a note on the person’s business card about the topic you discussed or what type of follow-up you want to do.
- Alternatives to exchanging cards. Another strategy is to not hand out your business card at networking events at all; simply say “I ran out of cards.” Ask for their card and let them know you will follow-up. Alternatively, ask for their cell number or email address, enter it into your smartphone, and tell them you will reach out in the next few days.
- To end the conversation, try the following techniques: Ask if you can follow up with them, thank them for the conversation, and excuse yourself to continue networking; introduce them to someone else and tell them that you’ll leave them to talk; or excuse yourself to go get a drink or some food or visit the restroom.
How to follow up after a business networking event
- Before you follow up, review your notes or recall the conversation with each contact and decide how they can assist you with your business goals, as well as how you can help them with theirs. Then send something truly useful, entertaining or personal. Perhaps a link to a popular article or book (yours or someone else’s); or a joke or humorous content relating to your in-person meeting; or ask follow-up questions about their family or interests or other topics from your conversation. The contact method can be an email, phone call or postcard.
- What to do with business cards. Develop a system for the business cards you acquire and connections you want to nurture. Many people like to retain the business card in a file (for example, a Rolodex or three-ring binder with sleeves for holding business cards). Others record the information in a digital address book or customer relationship management (CRM) system, and then discard the business card (perhaps retaining a digital image of the card).
- What to do with business cards that offer no connection. If you receive a business card, but see no possible reason to reconnect with the person, do a quick follow-up; email is sufficient. State that it was nice to meet them at (name of event). Then discard the business card.
Use these suggestions to develop your business networking skills and establish mutual relationships with those who can help you advance your career and business goals.