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The Truth About Networking - Part 2

By Reg Pirie |

The Follow-up Phone Call
In Part 1 of "The Truth About Networking" we dealt with Before the Meeting. We also began to look at the practical aspects of establishing contact with those who would eventually become part of our networks. In the following segment we'll discover what should happen before, during and after the actual networking meeting.

Unfortunately time and space will not allow us to delve into the topic of making your follow-up calls and dealing with how to leave effective voice mail messages when you can't seem to reach your contact in person. However, there are a couple of pointers which are important to remember. First, make your initial call within the timeframe stipulated in your correspondence. Second, a degree of persistence is necessary. The trick here is to be persistent while not stepping over the line and becoming a pest. For more information about effectively using the telephone click here to discover one of Reg's favourite articles - Taming Today's Telephone Technology.

The Face-to-Face Meeting
Obviously not everyone will respond positively to your letters and subsequent follow-up phone calls but your efforts will eventually be rewarded. At that point you will be faced with the reality of preparing for and participating in a networking or information meeting. For many new networkers, the challenges are onerous because the entire experience is foreign. However, here are a few things to remember:

  • The meeting is a discussion between two professionals.
  • You are gathering information and researching.
  • You are asking for input from another expert.
  • You are inquiring about other sources of information.
  • You want to expand your network.
  • You are demonstrating a willingness to share information you possess.
  • You are putting forth an image of yourself and the company / organization you represent.
Networking meetings are part of a continuum, they are not one-shot efforts. That is why networking must become a state of mind and not simply a process. The networking meeting is vital to developing a rapport with people. Meticulous care is required before, during and after the meeting. If you are careless, you run the risk of jeopardizing a business relationship which could ultimately prove to be mutually advantageous. Learning how to handle these meetings properly will help you to establish a comfort level and you will form good habits.

Before the Meeting
Once you have secured the meeting, review what you know about your contact and his or her company. If you feel you do not have sufficient background information about the company, do a little more research. Often a quick check of the company's website will supply you with sufficient material. Here are a few other "preparation tips" for your consideration:

Current Events - There is nothing more embarrassing than getting into a networking meeting and having your contact ask your opinion about a recently publicized news item concerning his or her company which you have no knowledge about. If you are serious about networking, part of your daily routine will include keeping pace with current business events.

Referral Input - If your meeting was set up with the help of a referral, give that person a call. They are part of your network and by keeping them updated you are highlighting the fact you are actively pursuing your networking leads. At the same time, you can ascertain if your reference has any additional information for your upcoming meeting.

Questions - Review your research material and jot down what you want to find out during the meeting. This will allow you to structure specific questions to raise during the conversation - more about the actual questions later.

Location / Arrival Time - Double check one other detail before the day of the meeting. Companies have a bad habit of having more than one location. They may use one street address for their incoming mail, but your contact could be situated in another building. Check! I am embarrassed to admit I have made this error - once! Leave yourself lots of time. Improper preparation or arriving one minute before the appointment are two of the easiest ways to endanger a good meeting.

Receptionist - Now you might think it would be natural to leap right from here into the actual meeting. Not so fast — you still have to contend with the reception desk or waiting area, and you can on occasion learn a great deal during your brief stay in the outer office.

Usually, your first contact with the company will be a receptionist. Properly handling yourself in this situation can afford you an opportunity to mentally prepare and set the tone for your visit. Introduce yourself and politely explain who you are, who you are there to see and the time of your appointment. An upbeat and confident dialog with the receptionist will set the stage for your introductory comments to your contact.

Peripheral Information Gathering - Arriving early will allow you a few minutes to complete one last check of your notes and questions. Then take time to absorb your surroundings and gather some peripheral information. It is amazing what you can glean from a five-minute wait in a reception area. Here are a few examples:

  • What does the area tell you about the company's image? It can range from stark and functional to downright palatial.
  • What about the employees moving through the area? Are they formal, informal, chatting, relaxed, intense, upbeat, or sombre? Do they generally seem to dress in formal business attire or are they more casual?
  • What is displayed in the reception area? Are products evident? Or are the walls covered with expensive-looking art?
  • What are employees talking about and what can you gather from those snippets of conversations?

Your observations can significantly assist you in formulating a feel for the company where your contact works.

The Meeting
Eventually, someone is going to appear — in most cases it will be your contact who has come to greet you in the reception area. If you have never met the person before, let them take the lead in the introductions. This exchange will give you a chance to clarify some nagging questions i.e. how the person likes to be addressed and what first name they use.

If for some reason you are still uncertain about the person's preferred first name - ask! Get the names straight now - is it Pat or Patricia, is it Bill or William. This is going to become an ongoing relationship and you want to avoid any confusion. These are informal days in the business world. I can't think of many situations where you would address a contact by something other than his or her first name.

The walk down the hallway is not the place to start your formal conversation. Keep the conversation light but also remember that "silence is not golden" in such situations. Once you get to your contact's office make an effort to absorb the surroundings. Unless you are meeting off-site or in a boardroom, the contact's office can supply you with a great deal of information about the person. Don't forget, your network is based on people and you want to get to know this individual on a more personal basis.

For those of you who are unobservant, let me give you a few tips on what you can learn when you walk into a stranger's office. Networking doesn't have to be all serious and you can have a little fun with this amateur detective work. Note the following:

  • Marital Status? Wedding ring, picture of spouse on credenza
  • Children? Pictures or "refrigerator" art work
  • Divorced or separated? No ring and photos of kids only
  • Athlete or sports enthusiast? Sporting memorabilia
  • Education? Sheepskins or certificates
  • Professional affiliations? Plaques and certificates
  • Hobbies? Pictures or related paraphernalia
  • Work habits? Cluttered desk or the clear vista
  • Company tenure? Plaques or pins
  • Company stature? Size of office, furniture, floor location
  • Computer fanatic? Lived-in look around computer station
  • General interests? Books, artwork
  • Formal or informal? Dress, posture, office layout

Use these and other minuscule clues to instantly develop a sense about this person. File that information away to use during your immediate encounter and for future reference. If you respond appropriately to the clues you will significantly enhance the rapport-building process.

Usually there are two items to deal with before the formal part of the meeting begins. Number one, exchanging business cards. Number two, accepting or turning down the offer of a coffee or a liquid equivalent. If you are a klutz by nature, politely decline by saying you have just had one. However, be gracious and allow your contact the option of going to get a refreshment.

If you are at ease sipping a coffee and talking, take your host up on the offer. You are two businesspeople getting together for a discussion. This is not an inquisition. Indeed, you requested the meeting.

The Meeting Dialog
You are in control, and for the most part, it is your agenda. But before leaping into the purpose of the meeting it is essential to start off with a little rapport building.

Don't waste a great deal of time in this part of the meeting. One or two well chosen comments will usually suffice. If a third party was involved in paving the way for the meeting you will want to state the name of your referral for emphasis. Just the mention of that person's name is often enough of a catalyst to advance the rapport building process.

And you might have chuckled at my comments about taking note of what is in your contact's office. If someone has a collection of Dallas Cowboy memorabilia hanging on the wall, it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out it is safe to make a passing comment about football.

The last part of rapport building should be a confirmation about the length of the meeting. Simply say something like, "I think I had indicated when I phoned that I would only need about thirty minutes of your time, but I can certainly understand if you have had to alter your schedule since we spoke." Wait for a signal. If none arises, assume thirty minutes is okay.

If you are new to networking you may think that a 30 minute meeting will be far too long. In reality it will go by very quickly and in most cases you will use up about 5 minutes during the greeting / rapport building and another 5 minutes in the close. As such, you only have 20 minutes to state your purpose, share your views and gather the information you desire.

Remember the second paragraph of your introductory letter? It really will form the basis of your statement of purpose, albeit you may wish to be slightly more expansive in your comments. After you have stated what you wish to accomplish by meeting with your contact, wait to see if any clarification is required. As a courtesy ask if it is okay to take notes.

One of the keys to having a productive networking meeting is to plan in advance what you want to learn. That means you need to prepare some specific questions to pose to your contact. Normally you will want to start with broad, general questions and move towards more specific questions.

Here's a cautionary note. You can only orchestrate so much of a dialog when you are having a conversation with another person. With this in mind, be prepared to have the conversation take off on various tangents. However, if you have taken the time to plan what you want to learn, it is much easier for you to steer the discussion in such a way that you will achieve most of your objectives.

Throughout the conversation, offer your own expert opinions when and where appropriate. Remember, networking is about sharing information.

Recap / Close
Be mindful of how long the meeting is running. You should take the initiative to wind up the session but before doing so there are a couple of matters which deserve your attention. First, recap three or four of the most salient pieces of information which your contact has provided to you. This action not only proves that you were paying close attention to what was being said but it also affords an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.

Having completed that task remember to ask the contact if there is anyone else who they believe might assist you in your quest for information. If such information is forthcoming, get the details and also ask if it would be okay to mention the contact's name when you endeavour to connect with the other person.

Don't linger and keep within the pre-agreed time limit of the meeting.

After the Meeting
You have done your prep work and you have had a good meeting. Do not stop there! The post-meeting work is every bit as important as the first two stages. Your dedication to proper follow-up is another way to set yourself apart from others i.e. demonstrating your professionalism as a networker. The technical procedures are simple:

  • Transcribe your notes to your data base
  • Prepare a follow-up / thank you letter
  • Record action items in your diary
  • Where applicable, communicate with your original contact
  • Communicate with new referrals
  • Plan and diarize how to keep in touch with your contact

Whatever you do, do not rely on the rough notes you might have taken during your discussions. Those are highlights only, and you will want to capture the details. The sooner you sit down to mentally review the meeting the better. If you are a beginner at networking, take the time to evaluate the entire networking chain of events - from your preparation to the final handshake. Assess what you did right and what you could improve upon.

You should draft your thank-you letter immediately, while the nuances of the conversation are still crystal clear in your mind. You want to extend a sincere thank-you for: the meeting, your contact's time and the valuable information you received. To demonstrate your alertness to the content of the conversation, you may want to highlight one or two specifics. Confirm that you are going to follow up on any suggested referrals. This will again illustrate your professional approach to networking.

If during a networking meeting you have made even a passing comment that could have been construed as a commitment on your part, make note of it in your diary and follow through. You want to take advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate your sincerity.

If you were originally referred to this contact by another, follow through again. Depending on the circumstances, the follow-up could be as formal as a letter or as informal as a voice mail message saying the meeting went well and you received a great deal of valuable information.

Communicating with new referrals is a matter of adding to your data base and activating the networking steps all over again.

Finally, map out and diarize how you intend to keep in touch with your contact. Remember, networking is not a one-shot effort. You need a plan to maintain and cultivate the contact.

Ongoing Follow-Up
Now this is where so many networkers go wrong. They fail to remember that a sound network is based on long-term relationships with people. That means you need to develop a follow-up strategy to keep your contacts informed by communicating with them on a regular basis.

Frequently people will say to me, "I understand why I should keep in contact but how do I do that without being a pest?" The answer to that question is quite simple. Consider the following generic ideas and then think about what you could do to keep in touch with your contacts:

  • After your first meeting, forward your contact a copy of some pertinent literature from your company or organization.

  • If you are written up in a newspaper or magazine, mail your contact a good quality photocopy. On the flip side, if you see their name mentioned in the media, drop them a congratulatory note. We all like to be recognized.

  • If you are involved in a trade show or similar event, let your contact know and invite them to attend. Their attendance is not the crucial issue but your invitation demonstrates your keen desire to keep them informed.

  • If you run across an article which might be of interest, forward a copy. Or pass along information about a pertinent website you have discovered.

  • If you receive an invitation to attend a conference or convention, share the information with your contact in case they weren't aware of the event.

  • If your company or organization is sponsoring an event, invite your contact to attend.

  • Above all else, be alert to possible opportunities which might benefit those within your network and recommend them to others for consideration.

You not only have to stay in touch but you also should be supplying useful information. Admittedly, this phase of networking requires a little imagination, time and effort. All of these positive interventions will allow you to establish and maintain a level of trust with your contact. If you consistently share valuable or useful information with a contact they will not only seek you out for your assistance but they will be receptive if you call upon them for additional help.

Impromptu Networking
Have you ever felt like a wallflower at parties, conventions, courses, social functions or lectures? Once you have got a feel for how networking really works you will discover that functions are more fun and productive. Why? Because you will come to understand that meeting people at such is events is simply step one in the networking continuum. By following the practices we have reviewed you can selectively decide which people you wish to pursue and include in your network of valuable contacts. All of a sudden you'll have an increased sense of confidence.

Summing Up
Good networkers do not keep a scorecard. The professional networker is continuously looking for ways to assist his or her network. Receiving something in return should be seen as a bonus. Talk to any consummate networker and they will all tell you the same thing. If you keep giving to your contacts you will frequently be rewarded. Notice, I said frequently, not invariably.

Indeed, in some cases you may never receive a tangible payback for all your efforts. However, your true reward will be in earning a reputation as a reliable and helpful business associate - one who understands the meaning and spirit of networking. You will discover that networking will make your job easier, while at the same time connecting you with a group of people who will become life-long associates in business and sometimes on a personal level.

"Networking is not a process; networking is a state of mind."
- Reg Pirie's favourite personal quote.

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