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How Deep Is Your Network?

You have a lot of contacts, but how well do you really know them? Strengthen the relationships you already have and you'll grow a strong network you can always depend on.

Recently someone I barely knew contacted me and asked if I would promote his business service within my networking organization. I considered this person a business associate, but definitely not someone I knew very well. That request made me think about how many people assume that if they've met you, they can ask for something that only a close associate would be willing to do.

Master networkers know that having a good contact doesn't necessarily make someone a good connection. Having run an international networking organization for more than two decades, one of the most important things I've learned is that it's not "what you know," or even "who you know." It's "how well you know them" that really counts in building a powerful personal network.

This means your network must not only be broad, it must also be deep. Unfortunately, I believe most people focus on the broad aspect more than the deep aspect. In other words, they concentrate on making more and more contacts hoping to find that one special person who'll solve their business needs this month.

When developing a reliable and effective network, it's very important to keep depth in mind as much as breadth! What do I mean by this? When you need to rely on others to help you out (promote your program to their client base or cross market your products), it's critical that you've done the work of strengthening your connections well in advance of your need.

When you're considering asking someone in your personal network for a favor, ask yourself if they're a "contact" or a "connection." In this context, a contact is someone you know, but with whom you haven't fully established a strong relationship. On the other hand, a connection is someone who knows you and trusts you because you've taken the time to establish credibility with them.

Unrealistic expectations of your network come from trying to "use" your network for support that your contacts might not feel you deserve, or feel they have no obligation to provide. You really do have to earn the loyalty and engagement of your referral sources. You want your network to have very deep roots.

In Southern California, we have many huge, tall and lush eucalyptus trees that topple over fairly easily in heavy winds almost every year. When they're uprooted and blown over by the wind, you can see that their root system is broad and wide, but not very deep at all. Don't let this happen to you! The following are some tangible ways to deepen the roots of your network:

  • Build quality relationships. Take the time necessary to deepen the relationships between you and your referral sources. We're all so driven and pressed for time; but in order to deepen your networking relationships, you must make the time to go beyond the normal business interactions with those from whom you want to be able to ask for support. Invite them to appropriate social functions, backyard barbecues and sporting events. Get to know these key people outside of the business environment whenever possible. The more of a friendship you can count between you, the more expectations you can both have from each other's networking efforts.
  • Think about where you can network to help build deep roots. There are the tried-and-true places to network, such as referral groups, networking mixers, social events and online networks. I talk about several different types of networks that you should consider in my article, "Want to Join a Networking Group? ."
  • Remember, however, that it's not enough to just show up; you must establish credibility with people before you can expect them to help you in some way. When someone tries to hurry the process, they tend to hurt relationships--not build their business.

  • Change your focus from "what's in it for me?" to "what can I offer you?" This is perhaps the most powerful technique for deepening and widening your networks. When building a deep network, do the things you can to bring business and contacts to your networking partners. Share pertinent information with them and invite them to business meetings that'll position them favorably with others they need to get to know. Keep in mind that you want to get to the point where your networking partners know you always have something to give them. In short, do what it takes to "earn" the help you might need to ask for down the road. It's no wonder the most effective and powerful networking entrepreneurs live by the philosophy that "givers gain."

I hope you're seeing a trend in each of these points. When deepening your network, you want to focus on giving to your referral sources. It's that tried-and-true analogy of farming versus hunting when building a business through word of mouth. Give your time, give your knowledge, and give what your referral sources need to succeed. As you develop stronger networking skills, it's better to put on the farmer's overalls and cultivate the connections you need to be able to call in support for programs and products you want to promote.

We all know the best time to plant an oak tree was 25 years ago; however, the next best time is right now! It's never too late to change your focus and develop business relationships with very deep roots--as well as far-reaching breadth.

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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