How to Network With the Goal of Creating Lasting Business Relationships

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Any business professional can hand out cards or post on social media in hopes of making connections.

When those tactics fall short, though, it is important to have solid networking skills to fall back on. Learning how to network can be a moving target as society and technology changes. But these are time tested and proven tactics that build lasting bonds. The common adage in business is that it is not what you know but who you know. And perhaps that is even more true in a deeply isolated culture.

Those who are able to rise above the superficial online presence and build real business relationships will thrive. We have studied the advice of experts and looked at what has worked for us to provide some tips. But networking is a very personalized skill that will rely on you maximizing your own personality strengths. There are tactics that will work across the board, but you will want to hone your approach to best suit you. 

In the end, it is our hope to spread a new appreciation for an old skill. By putting these steps into practice, anyone can increase their chances of finding vital new advocates. Whether you are trying to increase sales, find a partner or promote a brand, learning how to network can help. Knowing the right people to ask (and how to ask them) is vital. Here's hoping we can help.

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What you will need to follow this tutorial

  • A clear idea of what you want to accomplish
  • A succinct but informative method to confidently communicate your position
  • A list of people and/or positions you would like to include in your networking efforts
  • A metric by which to define a successful networking appointment

Alternate approaches for last-minute networking

Our tutorial is geared primarily toward those professionals planning for their future. For that reason, much of our emphasis will be on preparation for how to network. Unfortunately, life often does not go as planned. Whether a sudden cancellation or looming deadline, sometimes you just have to work fast. If you find yourself in a situation that does not allow for the prep work described below, don't despair. 

By keeping in mind the basic tenets of business networking, you can approach the process with confidence. No matter your situation, these skills can transform an awkward interaction to your next big professional break. The main thing to keep in mind is not to look desperate -- particularly if you actually are! Potential business partners will probably be turned off by this an less likely to be receptive to your ideas. No matter where you are in the process, the following guidelines provide a blueprint for how to network effectively.

A few final thoughts before we begin the tutorial...

The steps that follow are for general reference only. Each personality type and profession might require nuance and flexibility within our outline. But following these general principles below can help you overcome one of the biggest business obstacles.

1. Approach the opportunity with a plan

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Like any task worth completing, you should approach networking with some forethought. Whether you are setting up a one on one meeting or planning to attend a conference, create a guide. Figure out exactly what you are looking for. Is this an opportunity to find an investor? If so, that would take a much different approach than looking for partners. Figure out what you want most -- and then think of steps for how to achieve it. 

But don't stop with your top priority. As we all know, even our best laid plans often go awry. So plan for the possibility that you won't find that diamond in the rough. Determine what your networking needs are in total. Then create a plan for meeting and pitching your case in a natural way to anyone who might be of assistance. Before you approach any meeting, even a casual one, make sure you know what your goals are.

We recommend a written plan, as these reminders often stick in our mind more than mere thoughts. But at the very least, you should probably deliver your elevator pitch in the mirror a couple of times. Be sure to include the topics you would like to discuss. Also focus on how you can help others, not solely on the type of help you are looking for. Show up with all of your strengths, experiences and talents ready for immediate display.

2. Don't wait until you need a network to start building one!

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This tip goes hand in glove with the advice to always demonstrate how you can help others. If you are desperate to make the right connection, that will inevitably come through in any attempts in your quest to learn how to network. Learning how to network really means never letting yourself leave that mindset. When you become adept at the process, you will look at almost every situation as a networking opportunity.

The last thing you want to do is show up to a convention or meeting with a sweaty collar. You need to be calm and collected to make sure you are in control of your presentation. When you are not in dire need of a particular service, it can be much easier to find it. To use an analogy from the dating scene, it is often said that you find love when you're not looking for it. That is likely because you do not have the self consciousness of someone desperate for a relationship.

In a platonic sense, the same is true for business networking. If you let connections occur naturally and organically, they are much more likely to flourish. And a mutual symbiosis in that relationship will work to everyone's benefit. Be genuine, be honest and be transparent to succeed in learning how to network. It can be hard to achieve those goals if you are desperate for a lead.

3. Don't create a false hierarchy for potential business connections.

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Professionals often become too caught up in the cache of a job title or a person's extensive Rolodex. But just as you would not want someone to unfairly discount what you have to offer, don't shortchange someone else. In many cases, those who appear to offer the least have huge untapped resources. No matter who you meet with, be sure to give that person (or those people) every benefit. The worst thing for everyone involved is for you to prejudge someone before a meeting ever takes place.

Think of it this way: Most of your networking meetings are going to fall short anyway. That's just the wa things work and we need to be realistic about it. Not every network will end in a six figure investment. You won't end up on your favorite app developer's radar just by showing up at the same conference. So if you are comfortable with those odds ahead of some meetings, why not approach them all that way? Don't be afraid to accept meetings with people you think have little, if anything, to offer. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised be meeting that undiscovered talent before someone else.

The bottom line is that everybody has value. Everyone you come in contact with could feasibly become a valuable networking connection. If you learn how to network for long lasting relationships, this will become second nature. Each interaction is at least a micronetworking experience. You're always ready to suggest innovative ways to work together with professionals in an array of industries. On the golf course or in the frozen foods aisle, you can be a networking superstar. And much of it will be rooted in your ability to see the potential in everyone.

4. Promise to follow up -- and then actually do it.

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Promising to follow up with someone after a networking meeting has become a cliche. But that is only the case because so many people do not keep their word. We almost expect to never hear from the majority of our meetings again. After that first meeting, if things do not progress perfectly, you'll probably write it off. We would advise against that instinct. If you make that first step to reach out after the meeting, it will stand out. 

Basically, whatever you promise to do while networking should be exactly what you do afterward. Following through is far more important than saying the words. When others begin to see that you are trustworthy and honest, news will spread. But by the same token, be sure you do not overextend yourself. The temptation to do this is high if you are eager to make good impressions on possible business connections. 

We do advise you to accentuate your positives, and that often means showcasing your skills in a certain way. You might pledge to introduce someone to a relevant professional in your circle. That might not take much time in your day, but it could have a huge and lasting impact on others. Even if that does not immediately pay dividends, there is something to be said for kind deeds. Call it karma or whatever you like, the business world actually responds positively to kept promises. Maybe it is just because they are so rare, but it could really score you some valuable points down the road. At the very least, you've helped a fellow human along the way.

5. By all means, start off in your comfort zone.

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We get it, learning how to network can be intimidating. Especially if you are naturally introverted, reaching out to strangers is a daunting proposition. That's why you might not want to start with strangers at all. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of learning how to network, or feel you have already failed, don't give up. Maybe you just need to pull in the reins a bit and refocus your efforts.

Do you have friends or relatives who already support your venture? Perhaps sparking a conversation with them could give you some idea of what your next moves should be. Even if for no other reason than practice, picking a friendly audience can really help build confidence. Some experts recommend this process, at least early on in learning how to network. Northeastern University MBA Career Center Director Lynn Sarikas is one of them.

"You can do a significant amount of valuable networking without ever making a cold call," she said. "Start with a known instead of an unknown to demystify the process. This helps a shy person over the hurdle." Once you contact those in your inner circle, you can move out concentrically to less direct contacts. This might include your alumni list or other groups of like minded acquaintances.

6. Learn to ride the conversational waves.

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One of the trickier points in learning how to network involves joining conversations already in progress. You will inevitably come upon a group of people including at least one person you want to meet. This will happen more and more often as your networking skills grow. So it is best to prepare for such scenarios now. Say you are the fifth person to join a group already discussing a topic of interest. Would you be able to interject yourself smoothly without interrupting the flow?

If you had to think about it, the good news is you are not alone. Joining a conversation can be intimidating. You don't know all of the details that have already been discussed. There is probably a concern about making a bad first impression and then being locked into a bad chat. You can minimize this risk, however, by following a few simple tips.

First, listen. That one might seem to be a no brainer, but you would be surprised. Plenty of folks have a tendency to force their way in a conversation in an attempt to prove their worth. This often backfires, though, and makes you look overeager or cocky. Instead, try to sit back for a moment and take in the scope and tone of the conversation. When you feel you have a good grip on it, make your move. But you might want to consider a question rather than a statement of fact or opinion. Be sure to maintain a friendly demeanor, smile, and keep it light at first. Dale Carnegie & Associates Chairman and CEO Peter Handal recommends this approach.

"Then, when there is an opening, pose a question to the group," he recommends. "You build your credibility by asking a question."

7. Don't forget the classics!

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It might be tempting to give up on some of the time tested approaches amid ever increasing tech advances. But the truth is there is still a lot of value in quaint encounters like the exchange of business cards. For that reason, you should never leave the office without them in your pocket as you learn how to network. Peter Handal also had some advice in this area.

"Always have business cards handy," he said. "They are an effective way for you to leave your name behind so people remember who you are." 

Whether you love one on one conversations or prefer your cocoon, business cards can work for you. All you need is a few moments to make a connection and leave a possible contact with your information. Believe it or not, evidence shows a lot of people hold on to these cards. And if they are in the mood to talk now, or sometime in the future, they will know how. There are many new twists on how to present your card and even what they are capable of displaying. Find what works best for your personality and your brand, then start passing them out.

In many cases, when you offer your card you will receive one in return. This can be just as valuable, if not more so, depending on the circumstance. Hold on to these potential contacts and don't be afraid to reach out if it makes sense.

Learning how to network is a nuanced process, but well worth the effort of mastering.

We hope you found our tutorial enlightening. Our intent was to make a daunting task seem more achievable. Because it really is. Once you realize that everyone else has many of the same fears and doubts, it becomes easier to overcome them. And the more often you exercise your networking skills, the easier it becomes to do.

It's worked for us and many others and we hope you can also find some usefulness in these time honored tips. If so, share this tutorial with the upwardly mobile folks in your life. And if you have a favorite networking trick, share it with us in the comments section below.

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