Successful professional networking requires planning and preparation as well as a certain amount of social charm and verbal dexterity that come with years of experience. Fortunately, there are some basic mistakes even a beginner can learn to avoid straightaway.
Mistake #1: Showing up unprepared
Not doing your homework means you may find the networking event a complete waste of time, or worse – an embarrassing occasion you will spend days trying to forget.
Find out who else is going. Many event organisers make a list of attendees available beforehand, so use LinkedIn to research a handful of those who you feel would be good to talk to. The best way to avoid stammering for the right words is to know what you’re going to say ahead of time. Can you find something that you and these people have in common to use as a conversation starter? Practise introducing yourself with the ‘elevator pitch’ too.
You should also be clear on what you’re hoping to get out of going. Do you want a new job? Do you need some specific information? Are you looking for new contacts? If you don’t know what you’re after, you’ll walk away having accomplished nothing. Although you can be more relaxed about the research and preparation once you have some networking experience behind your belt.
‘I take the approach that you never know who you might meet or how you might want to collaborate with them – don't narrow your thinking by having too specific objectives; keep an open mind,’ says Julian Wells, director at Whitecap Consulting.
Mistake #2: Trying to ‘sell’
Generally, the main objective of networking is to sell, right? Wrong!
‘The biggest mistake people make is seeing networking events as an opportunity to sell their products, services or themselves,’ says Andy Lopata, author of three books on business networking (www.lopata.co.uk). ‘Unless events are specifically for people to "meet the buyer", people don't attend in buying mode,’ he adds.
Even seasoned networkers keep making this mistake and then wonder why their networking is unproductive.
‘So many times I see two people selling "at" each other and no-one is buying,’ says Carl Reader, director at accountancy firm Dennis & Turnbull. ‘In fact, if you were to ask the room who is there to sell, everyone would put their hand up, but if you ask who is there to buy, no-one would!’
Networking is about building and maintaining good relationships.
‘Get to know people – people only deal with people they know, trust and like,’ says Reader. ‘Establish relationships, then strengthen them. Get those contacts to the point where you are both comfortable to call each other or meet for lunch – it’s at that point that they become potential clients or referrers,’ he says.
Mistake #3: Mistiming your questions
If you want to get to know someone, you normally need to ask lots of questions, but there are some that you should save for later.
Asking 'So, what do you do?' early on in your first conversation with somebody is a mistake, says Heather Townsend, author of the Financial Times Guide To Business Networking: ‘It gives them the impression that all you are interested in is whether they are useful to you or not. Most people want to feel you have spent time getting to know them before "pre-qualifying" them as a potential client.’
Wait before you ask 'Who do you know that may be useful to me?' or even avoid asking it altogether, adds Townsend: ‘This question rarely yields results outside of a formal referral-generation networking club – people make referrals when they spot an opportunity for someone they know, like or trust, not when asked for them by a relative stranger.’
Mistake #4: Ignoring ‘irrelevant’ people
It is true that, to get the best out of a networking event, you should plan who to talk to, but don’t discount talking to someone who has no apparent direct or immediate relevance to you. Good contacts can come from all corners and the person you dismiss today could be a potential client or a hiring manager tomorrow.
Sometimes people drop whoever they are talking to as soon as the ‘right’ person enters the room. We have all spoken to someone who kept looking past us, searching the scene for those more ‘important’ than us... ‘It’s what I call "paparazzi eyes" – one of the worst and most common networking mistakes,’ says Matt Eventoff of Princeton Public Speaking Having. ‘Paparazzi eyes’ is bad manners, too.
Mistake #5: Forgetting your manners
While we’re on the subject of manners, don’t leave them at home. Just like you wouldn’t go to a job interview wearing jeans (at least not for a job in accountancy), you must pay attention to business and social etiquette when networking. ‘You won't get far without being professional and polite,’ says Wells.
It’s not polite to talk too much about yourself, even though some people do this when nervous. ‘If this is you, try to attend with someone you know but, other than that, ask lots of questions and make the person you’re talking to you feel you're genuinely interested in them,’ says Julian Wells.
Getting drunk while networking may be an extreme case of forgetting your manners, but it is not unheard of in the cultures where alcohol is freely consumed. ‘I've seen someone lying on the floor at an event,’ says Carl Reader. ‘Some events lean towards drinking and you don't want to appear "stiff", but my advice is to know your limits and always stay at least one drink behind everyone else!’
Mistake #6: Not following up
Many people believe that not carrying or giving out your business cards is a major mistake, says Andy Lopata.
‘But while it’s advisable to carry your cards in case someone asks for your contact details, it's actually much more important to ask for people's cards when you want to develop the conversation,’ says Lopata. ‘Failure to follow up when there's a genuine connection is a much bigger mistake than not handing out your cards.’
Try and make notes for the follow-up. ‘When you get a break between conversations, just jot down some key things to remember on your phone – it's easy to do as people are constantly checking their phones these days,’ says Wells. ‘The next day connect with people on LinkedIn and use the notes to write a personalised email.’
Mistake #7: Forgetting you are online
The potential for getting it wrong when networking online is just as big, if not bigger, as when networking face to face.
‘You are not standing next to the other party – it’s much easier to be misunderstood, you don’t know if the timing is good or bad, you won’t receive non-verbal feedback as you would face to face and people are likely to be more dismissive of someone they don’t know,’ says PR consultant Andy Turner (www.sixsigma-pr.co.uk).
So how do you get it right when networking online?
‘Reciprocity is the ultimate purpose of networking, whether face to face or online,’ says Turner. ‘But before you ask for something from them, try to give something first – maybe a comment or two on their blog posts, LinkedIn discussions or business articles, or retweet their Twitter updates. Asking for feedback or an opinion works well, too – people like to show their knowledge – as do flattery and humour when done with sufficient finesse.’