People like to talk about themselves and by now we all know that people refer business to people they like and respect. When you give others the time to tell their story and explain their business, your stock automatically rises in their eyes. Throw in the fact that you've got a top-flight product or service--don't worry, eventually the other guy will wind down and you'll get to talk about yourself--and you'll see how it's a lot easier than many people think to create a solid referral partner. All it takes are the right questions.

Question Time
Everyone has a story, so make it your job to find out what it is. This all begins with your first conversation. If you lead by asking the right questions--questions that demonstrate a genuine interest in the other person's business--you'll cultivate an atmosphere of trust and rapport from the start. By "right questions," I don't mean prospecting or qualifying questions, the kind you'd ask if you were trying to size up the other person's potential for helping you. That should never be the goal of the first conversation.

Here are five questions that will keep the conversation rolling, set you apart from other networkers and eventually lead to referrals:

1. What do you like most about what you do?
If you've been out networking before, you already know that "What do you do?" is one of the first questions people ask you. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't leave you much room to maneuver after both you and your fellow networker have answered:

Fellow networker: "So what do you do?"
You: "I'm a public relations consultant. How about you?"
Fellow networker: "I see. Well, I own a print shop."

(Awkward 4-second pause that seems to go on forever.)

Imagine how much better it works if you follow up with this question:

"Oh, a print shop. That's interesting. What do you like most about the printing business?"

This leads to more interesting conversation about the other person's business, his likes and dislikes, his experiences and so forth. It makes the conversation flow and lets you relax while you learn about his trade or profession.

What's more, if he's like most of us, he will eventually decide he's talked enough and will ask you the same question--what do you like most about your business? Be ready with a good response. A response that answers the question, raises important issues and explains how you're different from others in the industry.

2. You mentioned that you were in [industry]. What got you started in that direction?
This question is much like the previous one in that it gives the other person a chance to talk about personal goals and desires and to look favorably on you for asking it. It also gives you insight into how dedicated she is to her profession and how proficient she may be at it. When you learn what her previous experience has been, you begin to see ways that you might refer other people to her for specialized products or services.

3. Where else do you usually network?
Not only does this question help break the ice during that sometimes awkward period just after you've introduced yourself, but it also gives you a chance to talk about something you both know a little bit about.

Another reason to ask this question is because it gives you the opportunity to make an instant connection. It provides the other person valuable information he may not have known, on a topic relevant to him; chances are good you'll run into him at that next meeting. As we all know, a great step toward creating a solid referral partner is to first make a connection with that person.

4. What are some of your biggest challenges?
This is a great question that can be used toward the end of the conversation. Of the questions mentioned thus far, this one usually elicits the longest response. Why? Because you're asking about her passions and her motivation.

5. How can I help you?
Only once you've asked a new acquaintance some or all of the above questions, the conversation has gone well and you've decided this person is someone you'd like to have in your business network, is this a good question to ask. Being helpful is the best way to start building a solid relationship. For an experienced networker it's a question that comes naturally, because that networker is one who has adopted the mindset of giving value and service to others without any thought of immediate return. It demonstrates that you have the other person's interests foremost in your mind, and it's an excellent way to build the credibility and trust necessary for a valuable networking partnership.

Asking the right questions is about earning trust and gaining rapport with a new contact. It's about your contact feeling comfortable telling you about her business without competing with you for "airtime." But most of all, asking the right questions is about developing a relationship with a future referral partner, so she'll be more than happy to give you any referral that might come her way.