When It Comes to Networking, Farmers Will Always Beat Hunters Asking for the business too soon is a common networking mistake. A better approach is to use networking as an opportunity to meet people.
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Has a complete stranger ever solicited you for a referral or business? I call this "premature solicitation."
I've been its victim many times. I was recently speaking at a networking event, and before my presentation, a man came up to me and said, "Hi, it is a real pleasure to meet you. I understand you know Richard Branson. I offer specialized marketing services and I am sure his Virgin enterprises could benefit from what I provide. Could you please introduce me to him so that I can show him how this would assist his companies?"
Here's what was going on inside my head: "Are you completely insane? I'm going to introduce you, someone I don't know and don't have any relationship with, to Sir Richard, whom I've only met a few times, so that you can proceed to attempt to sell him a product or service that I don't know anything about and haven't used myself? Yeah, right. That's never going to happen."
I am pleased to report that with much effort, I was able to keep that little monologue inside my own head. I opted instead for a much more subtle response: "Hi, I'm Ivan. I'm sorry. I don't think we've met before. What was your name again?"
That surprised the man enough to make him realize his solicitation might have been a bit premature. I explained that I regularly refer people to my contacts, but only after I've established a strong, long-term relationship with the service provider. He thanked me and moved on to his next victim.
When I blogged about my experience on one of my favorite online social networks, a great dialogue ensued. Most people shared their horror stories and frustrations about strangers who pounce on them at networking meetings and ask for business. But just as I start to think there's an almost universal distaste for that kind of networking, I am brought back to reality by someone who sees nothing wrong with it.
To my astonishment, a man on the social network blog actually wrote: "I don't happen to believe that you need a relationship with the person you are asking first. What you must have is a compelling story or product/service that would genuinely benefit the referral. The fact that you had not cultivated a relationship with the person has become irrelevant because, more importantly, you had been in a position to help [your contact] benefit from the introduction. If it's of genuine benefit to the person being referred, I don't see the problem."
Related: Learning to Network: Organized Study vs. Winging It
And he concluded his comments with: "Who am I to deny my contacts something good?" Wow. The relationship is "irrelevant"? According to this writer, it doesn't matter if I actually know or trust someone. As long as the person has a worthy product, I shouldn't "deny my contacts something good."
I absolutely disagree, and I would ask anyone interested in business networking to keep the following in mind:
1. Networking is not about hunting. It is not about one-shot meetings.
2. Networking is about farming. It's about cultivating relationships.
3. Don't be guilty of premature solicitation. Do not ask someone for a referral or for business until you feel confident that the person knows and trusts you.
4. Use networking opportunities to meet people. Then, schedule additional times to connect, so you can build the trust that will allow you to ask for business.