Many people think networks are only for high-level business professionals who use them to arrange special golf outings, exchange front-row tickets to sporting or cultural events or make special introductions. The truth is that most people actually have networks, but they don’t always keep very good track of them or use them as well as they could.

A network is simply a group of people helping each other get to where each wants to go as quickly, easily and efficiently as possible. There are networks involving soccer moms, car pool groups, church organizations, social clubs and community service organizations. The most successful people in life and in business keep track of the people they meet through their various activities and build their own custom networks.

Tending to Your Network

For those of us in selling careers, a network is a powerful way to get to qualified prospects in the least amount of time and with the least amount of difficulty. Start your network by considering others first. Success is determined by the service you provide to others, not by what others do to further your goals.

Take some time to examine carefully what you have to offer someone in your network. What capabilities, skills, information, talents, connections and words of wisdom can you provide that might help build someone else’s career? Almost everything is useful to someone.

For example, the fact that you’re on a first-name basis with the owner of the local service station, flower shop or antique mall may be a valuable asset at some point to someone in your network. Just like links in a chain, you want to have a good, solid relationship with everyone in your network. A network is no good unless you work it. Treat your network as you would an expensive, finely-crafted instrument and it will provide you with enjoyment beyond your wildest dreams. Here are five ideas for maintaining a strong network:

1. Stay in Touch
When an interesting bit of information comes your way, don’t just evaluate it for yourself: pass it along to others who may also benefit from it. Other ways to keep in touch include birthdays, business or personal anniversaries. Keep an eye out for others in the news. Send them the article or at least recognize that you saw them.

Making others feel good strengthens your relationship. Go out of your way to share a meal with the key players in your network. These contacts don’t need to be lengthy or take on the appearance of an obligation; in fact, spontaneity often makes the contact more enjoyable. The point is to make the contact.

2. Ask for Help
If you’ve been good about staying in contact, don’t hesitate to seek support when you need it. People want to help others. Asking for assistance helps you and reinforces the fact that when the other party needs something, you’ll be there for them.

When you ask for help, keep two things in mind. First, say what you mean. Phrase your request in words that allow the other party to understand your real needs. “We’ve just added a new line of whatchamacallits. Who do you know that may need a new one?” is a lot more effective than, “Got any leads for me?”

And second, be kind and polite. “I need you to help me” sounds a little strong and even borders on rude. Instead, try saying, “I’m in need of a little help and was wondering if you could spare a few moments.” It’s warmer and less demanding.

3. Volunteer to Help
Become known for the excellence of your service. People like to talk, and your business is most definitely influenced by word-of-mouth advertising.

Go out of your way to find ways to support your network. Don’t wait for someone to ask for your help. Make a point of contacting members of your network when you don’t need anything. Just check in to see if you can be of service to them. Even if there is no particular need at that time, they’ll certainly appreciate the thought—and you will have further cemented a valuable relationship.

4. Focus and Follow Up
If someone in your network provides you with a referred lead, handle it immediately. Then, get back to the person who referred you to let him or her know the outcome and thank him or her a second time.

A network is a living entity. Once or twice a year, evaluate the effectiveness of the people in your group to see if you need to add more support in a particular area. If you’re all give and get nothing back, you need to correct the situation or find new links for your network. The opposite holds true, too. Honestly evaluate your own effectiveness to the other group members as well.

5. Make Networking an Integral Part of Your Lifestyle
Don’t think of networking as an activity to be scheduled. “Today, I will network all morning.” A champion realizes that virtually every waking moment can offer an opportunity to use, build or assist the network. Never hesitate to start a friendly conversation with someone. You never know where it may lead—to a prospect, a sale or even a new valuable member of your network.

By making your network more successful, you make yourself more successful. As the individuals within the network grow, succeed and prosper, your range of contacts increases. Your connections with successful people connect you with an ever-growing circle of more successful people. The depth of your support group increases as does your access to more and more powerful resources. All of this leads directly to more and more prospects.

TOM HOPKINS is a sales legend and author of numerous
books and programs including
How to Master the Art of Selling,
Sales Prospecting for Dummies and Selling for Dummies. This article
is adapted with permission from
Sales Prospecting for Dummies.