5 Great Ways to Network That Don't Feel Sleazy
While some seasoned professionals can market and network in a natural way, too many can come off as pick-up artists. Whether they are pitching a new health shake multi-level-marketing plan, their child's Girl Scout cookies, or their new tech startup, when someone you encounter has you in their sights to close a business deal, it can feel very, very uncomfortable. (See also: Networking Mistakes to Avoid)
So what if you're not a natural networker? Most business experts agree that your body language, tone, and ability to put your contact at ease are more important than the where and when of networking. With that in mind, here are some of the best strategies to getting a foot in the door of opportunity with people you see every day.
1. Make the Wait Great
There are so many instances of "hurry up and wait" in today's society, that it may feel like you spend more time in line or in a chair waiting for your turn than actually getting anything done.
Since places like airports, physicians' waiting rooms, and bus stops are meccas of professionals who are just like you (trying to get things done), there is an instant emotional connection that can become a genuine starting point for conversation. While tact is key (you would never want to approach someone who appears bereaved at an airport or in very poor health at the Doc's office), someone who is willing to make eye contact and ask you about your profession is giving you permission to at least make small talk. Use your brief chat to exchange a business card, if there isn't time for anything else. (See also: Simple Networking Tricks)
2. Network Around the Kids
I have met more like-minded professionals in the bleachers of my kids' sporting events than any high-dollar business conference I've attended. The team atmosphere and a sense of "belonging" to a group of people that you may never have bonded with otherwise also brings out opportunities to market. Whether you're paired up with another mom for snack duty or you happen to overhear a frank discussion during overtime, it's generally OK to follow-up with questions about business if they are brief and not overbearing. Close any shop talk convos with compliments or questions about the other's son or daughter, however. It is all about the kids, after all. (See also: Hidden Networks to Help You Land Jobs)
3. Share Your Skills
Do you blog, paint, write, or repair? Are people always asking "how do you do that"? Offering a skills class or workshop to the public is a legitimate way to meet others with similar interests, establish yourself as an expert in your trade, and possibly get some media exposure. Coupon bloggers are known for their initiative in holding "savings workshops" in their local churches and schools — sometimes for free. The result of these gratis offerings have resulted in book deals, consulting gigs, and a lifetime of goodwill that all the direct postcard mailers in the world can't generate.
4. Request a Referral
I am always amazed whenever I meet with a small business owner who tells me that they have hit a wall with getting new clients, and they admit that they rarely ask for referrals. The simple phrase, "I'd be delighted if you'd let your friends know about my services," is a golden key to bigger and better things, and it costs nothing to say. Referrals lend themselves to some of the easiest networking of all; you and the new lead have at least one friend in common. Use your shared experiences as a jumping off point for discussing business in a way that's neither harsh nor out of place. (See also: Bad Networking Habits)
5. Ask Your Fellow Alumni
I hadn't talked to a friend of mine from school in over 20 years. That didn't stop me from sending a LinkedIn message asking permission to refer a business associate to him for a sales pitch. He was happy to help, and it led to some great trips down memory lane. If I wanted to do some business with someone who starred in the 4th grade play with me or shared a marching band awards victory, I would find it easy to do. People whom you've created childhood experiences with are a special class of contacts that you can continue to check in with, no matter how much time has passed. (This is reserved for people who you were on good terms with, however. I wouldn't recommend networking with ex-prom dates or the class bully unless you've worked things out in the meantime.)
I have made some of the best business contacts in the most ordinary places. The key isn't to think of some untapped market to sell your wares; it is to maximize the time with those you know and meet to be respectful of their busy lives and offer them something of value. Even if they aren't a good fit for what you have to offer, they should walk away feeling like they are better off from having talked with you.
Where do you network? Why not try some networking in comments below?