Usually, you go to a networking event, shake a few hands, hear other people’s elevator pitches or career backstories, share your own, then leave with a fistful of business cards. The next day you look at them, mentally pin a few faces to a few names (but not all)—and still don't really know how to use that stack of cards to grow your business or advance your career.
That’s because you probably aren’t networking the right way. You already know it's not about simply collecting the most cards—that it's all about building strategic relationships. That isn't the trouble. It's that most of the potential relationships that seem to be on offer don't look all that strategic to you. But many (or at least more of them than you may think) can be if you're willing to shift your thinking a bit. Here's how.
The question you need to answer first is: Who do you want to build a relationship with? Many of us answer that too narrowly. If you're a business owner, you already know who your ideal client is, but chances are that multiple versions of your absolute ideal client aren't walking around every networking event you go to. You notice this, and leave feeling kind of dejected, having met only mediocre or dubiously useful connections.
But don't be so sure. In fact, it may be a mistake to seek out connections who meet your mental description of an ideal client, partner, or professional patron. Instead, find another professional who works with your ideal connection. It's that type of person who's usually easier to bump into and who can prove a surprisingly strategic alliance.
For example, as the owner of Media Maven, a PR agency, I work with small business owners to earn their brands media exposure. So while an attorney or a food distributor may not seem like useful prospects for me at first glance, they could be. A small-business attorney works with small business owners. In a meeting, the attorney’s client could mention wanting a short video for his website. Because I established a relationship with that attorney, and possibly sent a client or two her way, she may return the favor and reference me as a local professional who excels in video production.
Likewise, food distributors work with restaurant owners, and if that’s the niche I want to work with, a food distributor makes a great alliance for me. That food distributor may overhear a restaurant manager discussing the pros and cons of building a blog on the restaurant’s new website. Because of the networking I’ve done with the food distributor, he knows he can mention me, and my blogging background, to his client.
These are just a couple of clear-cut examples. Real life can be messier, but if you think creatively you'll be able to spot more potential relationships where in the past you just saw people working in unrelated fields and of little use to you.
Just remember: While it’s important to know what someone does, it’s just as vital to know who that person works with. Here are a few good, straightforward questions to ask to determine if that person would make a strategic alliance:
- Who are your clients?
- What’s your favorite kind of client to work with and why?
- What kind of clients do you wish you worked with more?
- How can I help you get more of those clients?
When you ask these questions, you get a feel for the other person’s reach. This in turn gives you the chance to talk about your current and ideal clients or professional connections. So many people go into networking events wanting to make a sale or meet somebody with the direct ability to hire them.
But pinpointing just two or three connections with the potential to grow your own reach, even indirectly, will serve you a lot better than a handful of vague professional acquaintances you made while trying (and often failing) to directly fill a need of your own.
Once you think you’ve found those strategic alliances, set up a meeting to discuss more specifics one on one. Instead of waiting to get home and go through all those business cards the next day, whip out your phone and schedule a lunch or coffee meeting right then and there. If you don’t, life and work may prevent you from taking that next step.
The exact same rules apply whether you're looking to grow your business or push ahead in your career. While you may want to get in front of the head of a company or a hiring manager and wow them with your skills, you can’t forget about someone who already has a relationship with the kind of person you’re looking to connect with.
Most business development and career moves are built on a referral basis. And when you have a great working relationship with someone, you should be referring a variety of things—business, advice, recommendations—back and forth to one another. Not only does this increase your credibility, but it’s a lot easier to have someone else sell you to someone they know than you sell yourself to a stranger.
Christina Nicholson is a former TV reporter and anchor who now owns and operates a full-service public relations firm, Media Maven. She recently launched "Master your PR," an online course that teaches small business owners and marketers how to handle public relations on their own.