During the "back to school" season, I often recall my first day at the University of Southern California, where I pursued a doctorate in organizational behavior. One professor spent the first part of the class talking about the "elite network" of peers we were going to be working alongside for the next few years and how we'd make relationships that would last the rest of our professional and personal lives.
The sad news is, even though I wound up founding a national networking organization, I've never passed a business referral to or received one from any of these high-level classmates. Instead, after graduation, we spread out to chase our professional goals without any context in which to keep in touch.
Of course, I was working on my doctorate in the early 1980s, well before online social networks and other web services were available to help people keep in touch. Today, there are a multitude of options to help you maintain the relationships you make while pursuing a college or university degree.
Here are three steps to help you reconnect with old school friends and convert those relationships into useful tools for your business.
1. Contact your school's alumni services department. Colleges and universities have been creating networking "affinity" groups and other opportunities to help students sustain their relationships with each other as well as their universities. By being active with your alumni organization, you can share news about your business that may catch the eye of your fellow graduates. You can also mine their network of current and former students to find out who you may want to connect with.
2. Reconnect using online networks. LinkedIn, for instance, is the largest "business only" social network, and you will likely find many of your former classmates there. And then of course there's Facebook, the social network that was started at Harvard University that exploded into an international network of people -- from students to parents, from entrepreneurs to brands, from friends to families, and more. I hear stories all the time about how people have reconnected with classmates they haven't seen in years.
Once you've started reconnecting with old classmates, it's important to keep track of these valuable contacts by setting up and maintaining a database. In addition to the standard contact databases available in Microsoft Outlook or the more robust contact management systems such as ACT, there are web-based contact storage systems that let you store your contacts in "the cloud." You can do this in Gmail and Yahoo, or through your account on LinkedIn or online address book Plaxo.
Related: An Expert Networker's Five Tips for Getting the Most from LinkedIn
You can also use your smartphone to keep contacts organized. For example, the Go2Tag mobile application allows you to create and apply customized "tags" for your contacts, so you can remember if you met them at school or, say, at a networking event.
3. Seek referrals -- gently. Once you've built and organized your network, the next step is to tactfully tap your "social capital." But be careful. If you conduct a constant hard sales effort aimed at your network, people might drop or "un-friend" you. I generally view social media as a brand-building tool, but using it to turn followers into sales leads is possible.
You can do this by asking your contacts if they know anyone who might be a potential customer for your business. You can also occasionally mention a special "deal," announce a special event or offer something directly to those in your network. A successful offering may not only encourage those in your network to buy but also to "share" it with the people in their networks.
Related: Four Steps to Building Social Capital
There are numerous options available today for reconnecting with former classmates. The main thing is to keep in touch with these potentially wonderful business contacts. You most likely can't pick up the phone and ask for a favor out of the blue 10, 15 or 20 years later.