Q: Can you give me some suggestions on managing the multitude of business cards I collect from people I meet at networking events?
A: You've been diligent in attending networking functions-making connections, getting your name before the public-and you have a mountain of business cards to prove it.
But you've accumulated so many names, professions, specialties and companies that you can't remember who does what. How can you get this jumble of valuable contacts organized in your mind? How can you keep the information at your fingertips? It can be done, but it will take some planning.
There are many ways to do it, but the system that works best for you depends mainly on two factors: the nature of your business and the way you process information. With so many different kinds of businesses, the way you organize networking contacts will probably be uniquely your own.
Whatever system you set up, the most important factors in maintaining it are to (1) be consistent in the way you organize and use it and (2) keep the information in it up-to-date. Each time you return from a meeting, conference, trade show or out-of-town trip and prepare to catch up on what's happening at the office, the first item on your agenda should be to record and organize the new contact information you've gathered. Your starting point is all those new cards you've brought back with you in your pocket, briefcase, suitcase, gym bag, purse or computer case. And if you're a really savvy networker, you will have collected several cards from each contact, one to use in your card-filing system and the others to use when making referrals.
Let's break the work down into three clear tasks. To integrate the new information into your existing network, you need to do three things: prioritize, organize and follow up on your contacts. You will follow your own inclinations, preferences and criteria for accomplishing each of these tasks, but the end result of your efforts should always be to strengthen, extend and enhance the effectiveness of your network of contacts.
Regardless of your system, the first thing you need to do is sort your contacts according to their potential importance to your network. Your time is valuable, and if you're like most people in these busy times, you have to ration it. I recommend a triage system:
The A list consists of contacts with whom you definitely want to develop relationships and maintain regular contact, whose cards you want to keep near at hand. This category can be further subdivided into three groups:
- Prospective clients.
- People you will refer to others.
- People who will pass referrals to you.
The B list includes contacts whose cards you might want to keep for possible reference, but that will not be developed under any of the A-list criteria. These are people with whom you don't expect to stay in regular contact other than sending them an occasional sales letter, promotional piece or newsletter. To simplify your filing system, it's usually best to keep these cards separate from your A-list cards.
The C list is everybody else-people or industries you don't want or expect to contact. There's no reason to keep these cards, so if you're short of desk space, throw them away. But think carefully before you toss them: Haven't we all dropped something into the trash, only to regret it a day or two later? A separate card box might become a lifesaver. You can note the date of contact on the back of the card and leave it in the C box for a few months or a year. Go through it periodically and cull the ones you've had the longest and never used. In the meantime, your C-box cards will come in handy as bookmarks or toothpicks.
Any two-way relationship, whether personal or business, is based on a familiarity with each other's interests, skills, preferences, ambitions, desires, charitable activities, hobbies and other factors. It is also based on making contact often enough to avoid being forgotten or ignored. These two principles guide the way your A list helps you build and maintain relationships.
Once you've done your triage and have sorted everything into three piles, you can start to organize your A-list database by alphabetizing your cards, grouping them by region or industry or profession, cross-referencing them or applying any other criteria that fit your profession and your business habits.
There are two principal ways of setting up your database: the old way and the new way. The old way is a manual filing system. The new way is a computer database. I talk about both at length in a book I wrote with Dan Georgevich and Candace Bailly called It's in the Cards. Take a look at Chapter 14 for more information on organizing your contacts.
Your filing system may differ, but the importance of using it to make and maintain contact is vital. Write out a schedule and set goals for making contacts. You could set aside 30 minutes each day to look through your file and choose someone to call. Or you could leave the time factor open and set a goal to call five, 10 or 20 contacts, new and old, every week. Keep an eye out for people and events you can discuss and choose the people most likely to be interested in or able to benefit from these opportunities.
Few of the people you meet for the first time at a business mixer are going to express a need for your product or service, but that doesn't mean you have nothing to offer them. Recommend the people on your A list by distributing their cards at other functions you attend. Let them know you've passed their card to an individual, recommended their business and that the prospect is expecting a call.
Once you've made that first contact, you need to keep building on it. One important way to do this is to follow up on previous contacts. A few weeks after your note to someone, follow up with another note or a phone call to ask whether the referral worked out. This will remind that person of your interest in his or her business and other pursuits. It will also reinforce his or her resolve to look for ways to return the favor.
Here are other occasions for calling a contact:
- Follow up on a topic of conversation.
- Request information about the contact's company.
- Give a referral.
- Arrange a meeting with someone the contact wants to know (and which you can attend).
- E-mail, fax or send news or information that may be of interest to the contact.
- Invite the contact to an event.
- Send a thank-you card or congratulations on a success.
There are as many reasons to make and follow up on contacts as there are people and events combined. The important thing in developing your network is to start with the business card. Give yours away freely in the certainty that something will come of it down the line. Obtain cards from others in the knowledge that you will find some way to be of benefit to each person that you can make a part of your network.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.