Professional services firm leaders feel acutely the fact that every minute you spend on networking is a minute you’re taking away from something else. That often becomes an excuse for why it’s not happening… one I don’t condone.  Although thousand person chicken dinner events, drawn out coffee meetings, and “being in the right place at the right time”, aren’t options right now, the focus on nurturing meaningful interactions with the people who matter most hasn’t changed.  To get the most possible value from your networking time—and to use your contacts’ time respectfully—consider a systematic approach to networking that focuses on connecting regularly with your most important contacts. 

Finding Your Networking Circle

networkingWith referral sources, quality matters over quantity—and that’s true even when you’re communicating remotely.  Be intentional about how many people you bring into your inner circle. The more people you cultivate relationships with, the less time and attention you’ll have to devote to each of them.

For an inner circle, 10-15 contacts is a manageable group for most people. In addition to the other marketing and networking commitments you have, aim to reliably commit to a one-on-one networking session two to three times per month, so you’ll be able to spend quality time with each person in your inner circle two to three times a year. 

How do you pick the people you put on your short list? Obviously you want them to be positioned to refer work to you, but you may know dozens of people professionally who could make referrals. Narrow down the list by honing in on contacts who meet other valuable criteria.

Think about people who you actually like and would enjoy spending time with (even if it’s virtual time). Other good contacts are people who have previously referred you to really good clients, and people who have the networks and clients you aspire to have. If you’re a member of any networking organizations, fellow members of those organizations could be useful contacts since you’ll cross paths at events and be able to make introductions for each other then.

Your outbound referrals should go in this inner circle as well. You might even want to introduce non-competing referral sources to each other as a benefit to you all. 

Making a Plan

When things get busy and you’re focused on time-sensitive tasks, networking meetings aren’t top of mind—but ignore those relationships too long, and you won’t be top of mind for your contacts either.

By creating a system to schedule your networking meetings, you’ll increase your chances of the meetings actually happening!  Consider creating a series of calendar invites for yourself on the first of each month. In the invite, include the names of the people you want to connect with that month. When the invite pops up, reach out to those contacts to schedule conversations. This is a much more effective way to get that critical “face-time” with referral sources, compared to saying “let’s get together sometime!” and not following up.  

Using Networking Time to Move Forward

Though you may have expertise across several industries, or be able to speak on a range of issues within your own industry, you don’t necessarily want to be that broad when talking to your referral sources. A better goal is to position yourself as a great resource within a niche industry or service that relates to what your referral source does for their clients. The idea is that when one of your referral sources is looking for help with the niche you mutually serve, you’re the person who comes to mind right away.

The risk in being “all things to all people” is that you’re never top of mind for anyone, and you get the worst referrals because you aren’t displaying your expertise in any particular space. Effective networking is about creating lasting relationships that help people to understand your work over time through examples, stories, and getting to know each other’s strengths and style through shared clients.  

For the “B” List
It’s entirely possible that you don’t think you can reduce your networking list to just 10-15 people.  For that, I would suggest that you either dedicate more time to networking, or create a “B” List; a list of people you email each month instead of offering to get together.  This can be a check-in email and can even include an article or some other resource that the person might find useful to help continue your bond.  The benefit of this is that you will keep in contact with more people but also that you may find someone who bubbles up from the “B” List to the Inner Circle.  

2020 has forced us to change our habits and has disrupted our “usual” ways of keeping in touch.  Networking will look different for a while, but it can’t be ignored entirely.  Strong relationships find a path through any challenge.  Stay close with your closest allies and you will both be better for it. If you want to up your networking game, contact me today. I’m deeply invested in all of my clients development.

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Alison has more than fifteen years of professional services marketing and business development experience. She is a Boston College Double Eagle, holding both a BS in Management with concentrations in Marketing & Information Systems, and an MBA. Alison is a member of the 2009 Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 class of honorees.