I used to hate the term networking. It just felt sleazy and always reminded me of a used car salesman. And gives me visions of people in stale, horribly decorated hotel conference rooms with business cards and suits. Definitely not what I think of when I want to build a business. Likewise, professional networking tips often feel forced and extremely uncomfortable.
But what I am coming to see is that I often network without even realizing it. Professional networking is often putting a fancy name to normal, intentional conversation. It’s taking advantage of moments in everyday life to talk about yourself and what you have to offer. I can do that!
Networking is chatting with another parent in the pickup line at church. Networking can be chatting with the barista at the coffee shop, or the person in line behind you at the grocery store.
Everyday professional networking
Recently, my two year old and I were on a date night: chocolate milk from Starbucks (for him) and a latte (for me), along with all the toddler-directed wandering through the neighborhood and grocery store that he wanted. (For the record, going into the grocery store was his idea not mine. He loves getting go-shees.)
We took about 30 minutes to go about 100 yards. And we saw several people more than once as they came and went in the time it took us to go 25 yards.
Some stopped to say hi, or make other comments to him. One woman, Crystal, stopped and chatted for a few minutes. She has a son a little younger than mine, so we compared notes on raising little boys.
As she was leaving, she casually mentioned that she works at a local barber shop, and does child haircuts.
Incidentally, it’s the same shop my husband gets his hair cut at, and it never occurred to me that they did kids cuts. I haven’t been there myself. You can bet that if and when we take him somewhere for a cut, I’ll go there.
At the time, I didn’t catch her name, but I assumed that I would recognize her if we went to the barber shop. Sure enough, several weeks after our grocery store encounter, my husband and I took our son to the barber shop to watch Daddy get his hair cut. He is terrified of the clippers, so we figured watching Daddy might help ease the fear.
Crystal was working, and immediately engaged our son in play and showed him her tools and how things worked. This had no financial benefit to her – she wasn’t the one cutting my husband’s hair. She genuinely loves children. After we had been there several minutes, she commented that we looked familiar. I reminded her about the grocery store, and she remembered.
Before we left, she gave us her card, which she had written her hours on. This was extremely helpful, and gives me concrete information to engage her services.
From this encounter, we can see four ways that networking can be effective, while also being completely natural to our personalities and daily activities.
Four natural and effective professional networking tips
1. Make a connection
What do you have in common with the person? Strike up a conversation. This really can be as simple as “Wow, isn’t it a beautiful day.” Or, in our example, commenting on how cute my son was and what fun we were having.
2. Offer something of value
As the conversation warrants, share something that can help the other person – no strings attached. Crystal the hairdresser exchanged parenting tips and stories that were relevant to both of us – and had nothing to do with her business. And once we were in the shop, she showed our son the ropes and did her best to make him comfortable in the environment – with no immediate benefit.
3. Casually share what you have to offer and how the person can find out more.
Make sure that the person knows you have a business that can meet their need (stated or implied), and how to find out more. Mentioning where she worked was perfect in the grocery store. And giving us her card and hours was appropriate when we were already in the shop.
4. Do not be spammy, push or try to make a sale.
If Crystal had walked up to us in the grocery store and said, “Hey, looks like your son needs a haircut. I cut hair. Here’s my business card.” I would have been totally turned off. But she didn’t. She made a connection first.
One key thing to remember: Using professional networking tips to find clients or jobs is a long term game. It’s about relationships. You don’t network to get a client or a new job today. Network to build connections and benefit your career or business down the road.