Keeping connections fresh is entirely about giving. You are giving someone attention, and you are not asking for anything. It is a pleasant contact for them. And it makes a huge difference. If someone hears from you, even once a year in an email when you don’t need anything, then when you ultimately do need something, it is very comfortable for both parties. But if you haven’t connected with them at all in five years and suddenly, out of nowhere, ask them for something, it becomes very uncomfortable for you and potentially annoying or easy to ignore for them. You may recognize this situation from having been on one or both sides of the exchange.
If you have kept the connection fresh and updated, not only will it be much more natural and comfortable when you need to reach out, but the other party will be much more inclined to actually help you!
Several people who used to work for me check in once or twice a year; they let me know what they are up to, ask how I am doing, send a photo of their family or vacation trip. When one of these people needs a reference, not only am I really glad to do it, but I also do a better job of it than I would for an "out of the blue" contact because I feel like I am not talking about a stranger.
In contrast, there are a few people in my network who contact me every two or three years only when they need a reference, but then never follow up and say thank you or let me know what happened. In one case I had heard through the grapevine that this guy got the job. I sent him a congratulations note, asked about his family, gave him some ideas about people I could introduce him to who might be helpful in his new role—you get the idea. Never heard back. It got to the point where this guy contacted me four times over about six years for a reference, and I never got a single contact other than that. I will forgive people for being busy sometimes, but no one is too busy not to check in or say thank you even once in six years! I still get requests from him; I have just stopped responding.
When I talk about giving things to your network, what I mean is making a connection, offering value, doing a favor, and not asking for anything in return. Here is a list of specific things you can do:
- Hello: Just say hello or give people a quick update when something interesting happens. Be the one to stay in touch. You are not asking for anything. You like to hear from people; so do they. People appreciate it when you are the one to make the effort to stay in touch.
- Remember things: Listen. Then follow up later: "Did your son get his black belt?" "Did you buy those Acoustic Audio speakers?" "How is your daughter doing in New York?" It feels good when someone remembers your details. When someone tells me something about their work, their hobbies, or their family, I put a note in my contact database, so the next time I connect with them I can remember and ask.
- Offer to help: "What is your challenge right now? How I can help you?" I know some really effective salespeople who start every single meeting this way, asking, "Before we get on with the agenda for our meeting, what is going on with you, and how can I help you?"
- Positive feedback: Most of us live in a professional world with very little positive feedback. How often does someone go out of their way to tell you they admire or appreciate you? When you do this, it stands out, is appreciated, and is memorable. "I was really impressed with [that article, that talk, something gutsy you did in a meeting]—It really made a difference to me. Thank you." Unsolicited positive feedback is a gift.
- Say thank you: I can’t tell you how many people don’t do this. There are people I only hear from when they need a reference, and then after I let them know I gave it, I never hear from them again. Saying thank you is a big deal in your network. Thank people a lot and often. For example, keep a list of all the people you contacted during a project or a job search, and send out a note at the end letting everyone know what happened and saying thank you.
- Follow up: When you ask someone in your network for something (like a reference, advice, an introduction) and she follows through, let her know what happened. Did you get the job? Did the idea work? Most people don’t do this either. I do all kinds of things people request of me and I rarely hear back about what happened. When I do, it is the exception, and I am thrilled. Once I got a call from an executive recruiter while I was driving; a referral I’d made had led to an actual placement, and she wanted to thank me. I almost drove off the road! That’s very rare, indeed.
- Make an introduction: Be astute about helpful introductions you can make. By doing so you give not just one, but two people a valuable gift without asking for anything in return. Make sure, however, that it’s valuable for both parties; introduce only people you are certain will both benefit from the introduction. That is giving. If you are making an introduction because one of the people needs help and the other can give help, just be clear; in one case you are giving and in the other you are taking.
- A point of interest or enjoyment: If you remember what is important to people and what they like, it gives you an opportunity to point them to great stuff that you run across like articles, movies, books, music, and events. Food also works! These can be pointers to business articles or resources that relate to their work, or something you think they will enjoy personally, like pointers to music, videos, recipes, photos, podcasts, and so on.
- Photos: It’s amazing how much of a difference photos can make. A colleague of mine at an agency tried to get a response from a prospect for over a year. Finally he decided to attach a photo from a trip to Italy to one of his emails and he got a response within minutes, thanking him for sharing the photo and opening the door for a conversation. Use photos of things you’ve seen and done, yourself, your family. You always look at them when people send them to you, don’t you? It is a real personal touch. But make sure to either send a link or resize them. Don’t email 8 MB photos!
- Video mail: Video mail is an excellent way to make a contact as well. And it comes across as a much bigger deal than it actually is! The trick is to think of it and do it. It is a personal and standout way to say hello to someone, and people remember it. Just search the Internet for "free video email."
The above is an excerpt from Patty Azzarello's Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life, available May 1 from 10 Speed Press.
[Image: Flickr user Sea Turtle]