Tis the season to network

Rhonda Abrams

The holiday season is busy, but it's also a great time for networking. By networking, I don't mean installing all those computer cables around the office; I'm talking about getting out there and meeting people who might be potential customers or referral sources.

Check your in-box and your mailbox. Check the business section of your local newspaper. You'll find invitations to or listings of many business and social events you can attend. This is the season for holiday parties, end-of-year Chamber of Commerce mixers, trade and industry get-togethers. And don't forget the parties your own friends invite you to.

In the early years of my consulting business, I was a regular attendee at networking events, and they were critical for finding my first clients as well as helping me learn more about my market.

To help you get ready for all those events you can attend in December, here's a refresher course in networking:

Attend. You can't meet people sitting in your office. I know how difficult it is to drag yourself to some of these events, especially when you've got a ton of work to do. But you've got to keep marketing to keep income coming in, and this is a great time to meet new contacts. You never know which event may bring you the big customer.

Bring business cards and a pen. Always bring your business card, even to a purely social function. If you're going to a business mixer or trade event, bring plenty of cards. I'll tell you what the pen is for later.

Wear a name tag. Sure, those stick-on labels proclaiming, "Hello, My Name Is..." may seem silly, but people have an easier time remembering your name if they see it as well as hear it. Write your first and last name as well as the name of your company.

Approach people. Even if you've been a wallflower all your life, now's the time to get over it. A good way to meet people is in the drinks line or by the buffet table. If it's a business event, it's perfectly appropriate to start the conversation with, "Hi, I'm ..." If it's social, you can make a positive comment about the food, the room, or the host. You don't have to be brilliant; other people are grateful for someone taking the initiative.

Have a clear, concise statement of what you do and, ideally, who you do it for. In even the most social setting, you're likely to be asked, "What do you do?" Have a one-line description people can easily remember. Make the description appropriate for the group you're attending. In a real estate trade meeting, for instance, you could say, "I'm a mortgage broker specializing in no-doc loans." In a general business or social setting, you'd change that to "I arrange mortgages or refinancing for people who have a hard time getting loans."

Actively listen. The tendency, especially if you're nervous, is to want to either stand back and say nothing at all — or to immediately start talking about yourself. Instead, ask questions and listen. Use your time to establish rapport — some common connection — rather than trying to make a sales pitch.

Give people your business card. You don't have to wait for someone to ask. Once you've got a conversation going, it's perfectly appropriate to say, "I've enjoyed meeting you. Here's my business card."

Ask others for their business card. If someone doesn't offer you a card, and you think you may want to follow up with them, just ask, "Do you have a card?" If they don't have one, whip out that pen you brought and have them write the info on the back of one of yours.

Move on. Don't stay with one or two people the whole event. Mingling means moving around. You can excuse yourself to go get another drink, or just end a conversation with "It's been great talking with you. Let's get together some time for lunch."

Follow up. You've gone to the event. You've made the contact. You have their business card. Now make the call.

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