Although we know that the goal of networking is to discover new business opportunities, it's more than a "paint by the numbers" process. It takes time, patience, and creativity to cultivate people into our lives. The key is to make networking become a natural part of everyday life.

When I first started consulting businesspeople, networking was starting to get a bad reputation. People saw trade shows, business seminars, and community events as "targets" to pass out and collect as many business cards as possible. Ultimately, people networked when they needed something from someone. I agree that type of attitude can be detrimental to our sales success.

To make positive networking become a part of your everyday life, start with a strategy and begin the process. Begin to imagine that many people you meet can lead you to potential business. Now plan a strategy that will include tactics to allow people to feel comfortable, trusting, and willing to help you achieve more:

  1. First, know your contact. When someone is offering to help you meet other people, make sure you are not "using" them. When you call someone up and say, "Hi Bob. I need your help with some referrals. Any suggestions?" On the surface it seems harmless. However, people will sense when you're using them as a means to an end. A better approach would be to have a genuine dialogue first. Then at the right time, ask them if they would help you "brainstorm" for new ideas to develop new business. Sometimes your contacts will give you more than you hoped

  2. Have a clear vision. Be sure that you can see the end results with all your contacts. For example, make sure your contacts get you close to the people you want to meet. When someone gives you the name of the sister, who knows the postal worker who delivers mail to your lead, then it's going to take a while to get what you want. Contacts should get you as close as possible to the right leads.

  3. See the potential. Everyone we meet is a client, prospect, friend, or knows someone who can help us meet one. Sometimes we think we have to go to the top, and may not realize the strength is in the foundation. Often, the top people rely on people they manage for advice. While the president of a company signs the biggest checks, you might want to find ways to let that person's staff see how you can provide the products or service to help everyone at the company. Avoid taking people for granted; almost everyone could get you closer to new leads.

  4. Surround the account. In addition to knowing the people around potential clients, take time to network with decision makers in a variety of ways. Think of a combination of ways to influence people. This could include trade shows, business networking lunches, and civic group functions. The goal here is to impress upon the prospect that what interests them interests you. Remember, be genuine. If you don't bowl, then forget about joining a league just to get near potential customers.

  5. Solid relationships endure. If you have ever followed the progress of new construction, you'll find it takes some time to get the foundation in place. However, once that's done, the rest of the building seems to go up in a relatively short period of time. That's also true with networking relationships. Once you've determined the best way to network with new customers, then stick with it. For example, if there are monthly meetings, make sure you attend each one. If the contacts ask for some follow-up information, make sure you send it out.

  6. Follow up in unique ways. No, you don't have to send singing telegrams. When you network with new people, work to remember something that is important to them. It could be something they collect, or may be something related to sports. Then, these topics can become a springboard for future communications. For example, if someone likes fishing, the follow-up note you send could have a fish on it. It doesn't take much. However, it does take some thought. It's this attention to detail that will strengthen your networking relationships. One way I have generated over 50 percent of my business is from sending handwritten notes. According to the United States Postal Service, only 4 percent of the mail is personalized. This simple form of communication will get you remembered.

Here's a game plan you might want to follow to help make networking a part of your life:

Start viewing the world as being one big network. Now plan on "plugging" into it to get the power that leads to more customers.