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Though networking is a buzzword in business, over the past few years, its reputation has fallen slightly to the wayside. As the name implies, networking feels like a job, or something you have to do. Additionally, at its core, the word “networking” feels impersonal and cold. This is what people do when they’re looking out for themselves, and need to attend events to look for people (read: opportunities) to advance their careers.
What’s more is that networking, as a verb, is something that one does without guaranteeing that anything comes out of it. Case in point: in any industry, you feel like you have to network to cast a wide net. So, you go to the nearest relevant conferences or meetups. Perhaps you collect a bunch of cards, and put them in your Rolodex, filing system, or simply throw them in a cabinet. But what actually comes out of this?
At networking events, you’re encouraged to practice and memorize your “elevator speech” and recite it to various people throughout day, with no true connection to the majority of those you’re speaking to. Michael Wagner, the project manager at the SF Department of Health, likened traditional networking to speed dating in one LinkedIn post. In it, he describes how the same type of questions are asked. And if those questions are answered in the wrong way, the date or business connection can quickly deteriorate.
The Art of Relationship Building
Relationship building, on the other hand, is the process of actually following through with the people who are most valuable to you–but also people who you can be of value to as well. According to Wagner, “Building relationships with communities can take years to create properly. The relationship between individuals must be nurtured and respected before it’s used. Developing a genuine relationship creates trust and a strong bond.”
When your goal is to build relationships, you aren’t just searching for a stepping stool to your next opportunity. You’re looking for someone to climb a ladder with, and help one another grow.
Relationship building is the process of taking things a little bit further, and actually getting to know a person you share a business relationship with. This is someone who you find interesting, and who enjoys your company as well. This type of professional relationship is much more powerful than the one between you and an individual you met at a networking event, whom you exchanged contact information with, but barely have context.
People are more likely to refer you to others if they’ve invested the time in building a relationship with you. And building relationships can certainly be considered something of an art. It takes time, dedication, and perseverance, and you’ll need a tough skin to understand that sometimes, it doesn’t always work out.
The first–and most important step– is reaching out and introducing yourself. This isn’t just something you should do at events, but virtually as well. There may be a blogger or entrepreneur that you look up to, and don’t know when, if ever, you’ll be in the same room at the same time. An email introduction is the best way to go in this case. This allows you to take the time and draft what you want to say.
In relationship building, you don’t always have to be selling yourself. Lending a little flattery goes a long way; tell them why you’re a fan, and what you particularly like about their work. It helps to throw in a question about their process or career at the end, to initiate more than just a “thank you” email response.
Over the next couple of months, pave the way with compliments without being too annoying. Keep tabs on their blog posts, career moves, and any work they do. For example, if they just announced a website redesign, compliment them. Or, send them an article that that relates to their work. Browsing international articles is often a good way to get them a valuable resource they may have not heard of.
Another great way to build a relationship is to make yourself valuable by offering help. Offer help based on your own skills, and how you can leverage them to everyone’s benefit. For example, if you were a web designer, you might ask to design a logo or social media and blog post graphics. This way, not only are you providing value to their website, but can also add it to your resume. It’s important that when you offer help, you aren’t overly critical of what they’ve currently got going on. Email communication isn’t always as easily conveyed as the tone of your voice, so some things can border along the edge of offensive if not word correctly.
You may start to notice that after a while, this type of relationship becomes reciprocal. They’ll start to send you articles they come across, and appreciate that you always think of them. The key is to not make them feel like they owe you, but that they actually want to do something nice for you. Eventually, after you’ve invested the time and energy into relationship building, the relationship will form into a mutually-beneficial one.