How to become a great networker
- Paula Moore, Special to the Business Journal
Networking guru Ivan Misner asked the 900 attendees at an event he did in London a few years ago to raise their hands if they hoped to sell something that day, and a sea of hands went up. When he asked how many people wanted to buy something, no hands were lifted.
“That is what I call the networking disconnect. People show up to events wanting to sell, not to buy, but that’s not networking; that’s direct selling,” said Misner, founder and chairman of Business Network International (BNI) in Upland, Calif., and author of 16 books, including “Networking Like a Pro.” Misner also holds a doctorate degree in organizational behavior from the University of Southern California.
Networking is developing and maintaining relationships through mutual trust to help build a business, according to networking experts.
“If we view networking as a transactional process, we get suboptimal results,” said Ed Batista, instructor and leadership coach at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in Stanford, Calif. “If we do it in a more human way, we can create potentially meaningful relationships in any circumstance. It doesn’t have to be at a networking event.”
One of the best networking experiences for Josh Hinds, a professional trainer and coach, happened when he was at a gas station. He noticed that a woman who was about to put gas in her car was wearing dressy clothes. Deducing the woman was going somewhere important and wouldn’t want to smell like gas or possibly stain her outfit, Hinds offered to pump the gas for her, and she accepted.
“She ended up asking me what I do, and then ended up being a customer who referred me to a lot of other customers,” said Hinds, owner of GetMotivation.com of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and author of “Why Perfect Timing is a Myth.” “For me, networking is a lifestyle.”
BNI’s networking strategy is based on a process called VCP — visibility, credibility and profitability. The group believes business people need to be visible in their communities and establish their credibility before they can achieve profitability. “You only get there when you have good, solid relationships,” Misner said of profitability.
Started in 1985, BNI has 6,300 chapters in 50 countries, making it the world’s largest business networking organization, according to the group.
Networking is key to any business strategy because it’s one of the best ways to build a business, along with things such as advertising, public relations and sales techniques, according to networking experts.
“People want to do business with people they know and trust,” Misner said. “Trust is the cornerstone of the referral process, which flies in the face of what most people think networking is.”
Networking involves truly getting to know another person, not just giving that person a sales pitch and a business card, experts said. It entails skills such as being a good listener, picking up on another person’s emotional cues, having empathy for other people and being confident enough to talk to strangers. A little thoughtfulness — taking the time to write a thank-you note, for example — and volunteering for nonprofits or business groups also go a long way toward relationship building.
“Instead of trying to get your business card into another person’s hand, ask for that person’s card,” Hinds said. “Build rapport in a low-key way. The other person will remember you better if you’re focused on them.”
Batista thinks people with problems networking face two basic issues. They’re either anxious about reaching out to potential contacts and prospects, or they’re confident about making connections but are sometimes too blunt or aggressive, which “turns other people off,” he said.
For the anxious group, Batista suggests that acknowledging anxiety is the first step to overcoming it. Next, those people can reach out to a relatively nonthreatening person or group to increase the odds of getting a positive response — such as a graduate student approaching alumni of his school. People nervous about networking also might identify someone just outside their circle of friends — the colleague of a friend, for example — and contact that person.
Confident networkers, on the other hand, might need to pay more attention to other people — to work on making a genuine, authentic connection with another person.
“Introverts can be extremely good at networking; they’re really good at listening,” Misner said. “Extroverts are great at talking to somebody; the problem is they … go on and on, and never ask about the other person. The extrovert walks away telling himself, ‘I’m good at this.’ But the other person is telling himself, ‘He thinks highly of himself, but he never asked me anything.’”
While networking traditionally has occurred face to face, often at an event, new technologies have expanded it to electronic venues, from blogs and websites such as LinkedIn.com, an online professional network with 200 million members, to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Many networking experts believe each type of contact has its benefits. Meeting someone in the flesh allows a networker to shake that person’s hand and look him in the eye — to make a physical connection — but social media is becoming a more common tool in the fast-paced world of business, and is the wave of the future.
Ultimately, the goal of networking is building relationships with other people at an emotional level to help build a business. It involves meeting and interacting with people you can know and trust, and vice versa.
“People always say it’s not what you know, but who you know,” Misner said. “But I think it’s not what you know or who you know, but how well you know people.”