I used to wonder. I wondered how all those people good at networking got that way. Did someone teach them? Or were they born with the talent to glad-hand and make it look as if they cared more about you than they did about getting your business?
My first exposure to networking (which I thought of as some phony form of self-marketing) came long ago. Groups with names like “wealth-builders” and “success networks” made the networking groups I tried out seem multi-level oriented just by nature of their names. Not a social butterfly to begin with, I had to learn some rules of the game: (1) Grab some food first or it may be gone before you know it. (2) Get a drink of some kind to occupy one of your hands so that you don’t look like a dork (3) it’s okay to approach three people conversing casually, but when two looked steeped in discussion, wait for a break before you walk up (5) take LOTS of business cards but don’t shove them at people and, (4) Treat someone’s business card with respect. Never set it down on the buffet table to fill your plate. You could forget it there and that person just might be behind you in line.
Because it all seemed so contrived, I didn’t stay long in those groups. Elevator speeches, speed networking, conversing with people whose businesses held no interest for me – it all just seemed either out of my comfort zone or a waste of my time and money. But even though those groups may not have represented the model of networking suited to my personality, I realize now I should have given them more of a chance. I should have frequented the meetings more, extended myself to the members more and taken the time to get to know people. Why? Because I realize now that networking is more about making friends first. Doing business together someday is actually the icing on the cake.
When you think about it, why do we refer business to other people? Is it because we like them from the first hello, or because we have had experience with them? How do they gain our trust to begin with?
We recently had a kind of forced remodel done on our home. An upstairs toilet overflowed and its automatic threshold for stopping the water failed to operate. Gone all weekend, we returned to a downstairs master bedroom whose walls looked like a Salvador Dali painting, water cascading behind bubbled-up paint. Our carpet was soaked. And because the insurance company deemed it a ‘blackwater’ contamination, most of our house had to have drywall ripped out, carpeting replaced and painting re-done. It was a disaster. Huge dehumidifying machines were placed all over the house as it emptied of our belongings and we took up residence at a nearby apartment.
Without going into the details of the parade of companies and workers we were steered to by both our insurance company and by well-meaning friends, we now have a clear idea of who we’d want back in our house for future work. One restoration contractor forgot about us and the next one jumped through hoops to please us. One set of painters was incredibly precise and talented. Another set, hired to do work the insurance company did not pay for, were sloppy, even though they came highly recommended by people who had used them religiously and were told we may use them for future projects. It made us realize that one person’s idea of great work evidently doesn’t jive with another’s.
Now, before I will hire or recommend anyone, I try to do a bit of research – due diligence, so to speak. If I can’t find reviews on them online, I’ll ask them pointed questions about how they do their work, ask to see examples of it and test the level of communication between us. I want to think of that person, in the end, as a “friend with benefits” (but not in the popular translation of that phrase). I want him or her to occupy a place in my computer address book so I never forget the care with which they did their work, readily handy for another job. They need to earn my trust first and foremost. It is not until that point that I can, in good faith, give out their name to others. Why? Because the people I recommend reflect the trust others already have in me.
Which brings us back to networking. Just because someone belongs to your networking group doesn’t automatically mean he or she is the best in their line of work. Being members of the same group, however, means you are giving them a chance to earn your trust, just as you are hoping others will trust and believe in you. It gives you time to ‘pick their brains’ about what they do, see how they respond and communicate with you, and whether you are a good match to refer one another business, all in a non-threatening social environment.
I must say at this point that one should do his or her own homework before joining any networking group. The culture is different in each one – the times they meet, the kinds of events they plan, the number of people in each line of work they permit to join – all of it plays into whether it’s the right group for you. You can sniff out ‘cliques’ right off the bat – people who have already formed ‘good-ole-boy’ networks you may never permeate within that group. If the group doesn’t permit you to attend their meetings as a guest for a while, I would have some suspicions about how welcoming it would be to a new member.
So I finally get it. I realize now that all I need to do is relax, be myself and make friends and if I earn the respect of people in my group, the rest will follow in “build it and they will come” fashion. Why did I ever think this was all so difficult? I guess it was all in my head.