Rules of the road: The quick guide to better networking

Two businessmen shaking hands
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Image courtesy of Flickr user MyTudut

Here's a secret: I hate networking. Really. Truly. It's not something I'm proud of, but there it is. Yes, I train sales professionals and advise on sales leadership and large account selling for a living. And yet, no, I do not enjoy the act of networking.

But instead of hiding from it, I've embraced it. I've collected advice from a few experts through books, workshops and friends, and I've compiled them here for you. Let's be honest: when you can't fight it, you have to learn how to survive it. Here are a few tips to help.

1. First and foremost, it's not all about you. Keith Ferrazzi's book, Never Eat Alone, taught me a lot about networking, and the most important point is that it's not about you. If you spend your time meeting people and trying to see if there is a way you can be of help to them, you put your mind in the right order, and it is easier. Why? Because you may not be a great networker, but you are a great problem solver. If you can help someone else with an issue, idea or contact, you are working in the sweet spot of your skills. Along the way, good things will happen for you, too.

2. Set your goals. When I attend an event, I typically have between one to three people I specifically want to meet who I've picked out in advance. If they are not there, or they are completely encumbered, I go to my back-up goal. Set a number of new people, let's say five or 10, who you are going to meet, ask two questions, and swap cards with. Once you have hit your number, you are off the hook. You met your goal and you can go home, see a movie, catch the end of the game at the bar, it doesn't matter. You set a goal and you hit it. These networking events are not a prison-sentence if you don't make them one.

3. Ask good questions. "What do you do?" "Tell me about your company" and "How long have you been with your company/this industry/this association?" are all typical openers and they get typical answers. Boring. Try a few other questions instead:

-- "What business problem does your company solve? What is the best example you have of how you are doing that?"

-- "What has been the biggest win for you/your company in the last six months? What do you think it will be in the next six months?"

-- "What is the most interesting initiative you have planned at your company this year? How will that change your company the most?"

The point is that you want to pose questions that provoke and initiate conversation out of the normal routine. These questions should help you achieve that. Once people have answered your questions, you have just one more to ask: "That's great. Is there some way I can help you?"

4. Exit gracefully. I watched a real pro work a room at a cocktail party the other night. She would introduce herself, ask a question or two, ask if she could help, and then she would simply put her hand out to shake and say, "It has been so nice to spend a few minutes getting to know you. I hope you have a great spring." She would smile graciously and just move on. She took the initiative to introduce herself, controlled the conversation with a few questions, and then she left. There is a courtesy to be observed at a networking event that involves not monopolizing someone's time. The rhythm she set was at just the right tempo to accomplish what a networking event should do.

More expert advice on networking
Business networking without looking desperate: 5 rules.

When it's all over, you should come away from every networking event with these things:

-- Business cards of contacts with any commitments you made written on the back of the card for you to follow up on the next day

-- A few new prospects or industry contacts

-- More information about your industry, competitors and clients than you had on the way in

Lastly, here are just a few important reminders:

-- Take your business cards to the event

-- Smile

-- Be the first to put your hand out and introduce yourself -- every time

-- Send a quick email to every person you have a card from the next day. Thank them for their time and the opportunity to meet them. (This has ridiculous ROI.)

-- Don't complain. Just because this isn't your thing, no one wants to hear that you hate it, the food is bad, the place is loud or the people are weird. You're there: do your job and go home.

For some people, all of this is natural and I envy them. For others, like myself, if I have a process and some guidelines, it helps take some of the stress out of networking and I even learn to enjoy it...kinda.