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Five Ways to Take Charge of Your Own Networking

Every business should have a networking expert, but you don't have to hire one. You just have to take on the right mindset.

Among large companies -- take Google and HP, for instance -- there's a trend to create a new executive-level role called Chief Networking Officer. Some businesses call the role Community Manager.

Whatever you choose to call it, the CNO is the person who handles business networking and community-related activities, and the responsibilities range from developing word-of-mouth campaigns to referral-generation strategies. Other roles of the CNO include client relationship management, public relations, inter-departmental collaboration, corporate culture and relationship advertising and marketing.

In this article, I will focus on two roles of the CNO: word-of-mouth campaigns and referral-generation strategies. If you want to network like a pro, these roles should be the principal focus of your CNO.

First, let's address the thought that probably just popped into your head: "Hey, I run a 10-person (four-person/one-person) organization; how can I afford to hire a CNO to do my networking? Quite frankly, there never seem to be enough resources to take care of all the things the business needs, let alone hire an executive-level person."

But you don't have to hire a new executive. As the business owner, you're probably filling that job in one way or another already. Here are five actions you can take to be the Chief Networking Officer for your company.

1. Participate in two to three networking events each month, and follow up with people you meet. As a smart, enterprising businessperson, you already know the importance of networking and how vital it is to meet new people. However, one of the biggest mistakes people make is failing to follow up.

By adopting a CNO mindset, you recognize that meeting new folks while networking is just the first step toward generating more word-of-mouth business. The second step is meeting them later over coffee or lunch to learn more about their business and how you can help them. When you do that, you pave the way for future referral business.

2. Touch base with past business contacts by making two personal phone calls each week. Again, if you're like me, you've got so much going on that the thought of making two more phone calls is almost too much. But remember, a CNO's job is maintaining relationships and generating referrals. And that can't happen unless you stay in touch.

3. Use postcards and greeting cards to stay in touch with people throughout the year. A good time to do this is on annual holidays -- and not just Christmas or New Year's, but also St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Halloween.

Buy a pack of 20 cards and send them to people you've fallen out of touch with and with whom you'd like to reconnect -- past clients, past vendors, a friend of a friend, another business owner you chatted with at your local coffee shop a few months ago. This will keep you foremost in these people's minds.

4. Take good care of your database. A CNO should have a top-flight contact database and contact management system (CMS) to help her stay organized. It can be as simple as a physical card file or as high-tech as an online data site. It just needs to be something you can use so business cards aren't falling off your desk.

Database management software can supercharge your referral-generation system. Because there are data entry fields for many different kinds of information (e-mail address, phone number, profession, where you met the contact, etc.), you can sort and target e-mails to particular segments of your database with a few clicks of the mouse. There are several CMS systems, including ACT, Microsoft Outlook, and Relate2Profit.com.

The reason these systems are so important for a CNO is because his contacts are his business. You can't get referrals unless you have relationships, and you can't have relationships unless you stay in touch and up to date with contacts. A good contact database and contact management system enables you to do both while creating a powerful word-of-mouth marketing campaign.

5. Always thank your referral partners. A referral partner is not simply a contact who gives you referrals every once in a while; a referral partner is someone with whom you have entered into a relationship that is mutually trusting, respectful and beneficial.

Maintaining that relationship means, among other things, thanking your contact for referrals. It's just good manners.

Thanks can and often should take the form of reciprocation, of course; get a referral, give a referral. But reciprocity doesn't require such a quid-pro-quo response, and indeed it might seem a bit artificial if it happened as a matter of course. Gratitude by reciprocity should be given freely and abundantly, not in measured response to the number of referrals received. A referral partnership should never be viewed as a simple accountancy.

Extending a simple "thank you" is probably the single biggest action a CNO can take to maximize the number of referrals he gets. It will typically double the amount of referral business he gets from an existing referral partner.

Every business should have a CNO, but you don't have to hire one. You just have to take on the CNO mindset. 

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Ivan Misner is founder and chairman of BNI, a professional business networking organization headquartered in Upland, Calif. He is co-author, with Hazel Walker and Frank De Raffele, of Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think (Entrepreneur Press, 2012).
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