Secrets of a networking guru

Kate GaffinMost business and creative people today agree that networking is important, but many of us find it frustrating and a waste of time. Kate Gaffin, founder of Connecting to Greatness, cracks the code of successful networking in our exclusive interview. Find out the who, what, where, when, and whys of successful networking from a real guru of the method.

DD: Your networking venture, Connecting to Greatness, has grown rapidly in just one year in Manhattan, probably the most competitive marketplace in the world, and during a very difficult economy.  What’s the secret to this rapid growth?
KG: For two years prior to starting Connecting to Greatness, I attended countless networking events. I found the experience at each event to be fairly similar. I’d walk into a room, pick up and put on a cheap-looking, ugly name tag and roam around trying to break into conversations. Rarely did I see the organizer interacting with the crowd by making introductions, or trying to make their attendees feel welcome. Nor did I feel much in the way of any other kind of positive energy. In general, what I saw was a lack of any kind of shared intention, and the result was that people did not do more than “pitch” each other simply because they did not know what else to do.
When I created my venture, I set out to ensure a better networking experience for business professionals. One way I do this is by giving educational presentations on how to be a better networker. Past topics included: ‘Mastering the Art of Follow Up,’ ‘Creating a ‘Non-Elevator Pitch Intro’ and ‘Building Extraordinary Networks.’ Additionally, I choose my venues very carefully because a beautiful and warm space adds to the overall energy of the event. And I personally greet each networker as he or she enters the room. All of these components work to create an environment where people are no longer in “sales” mode but in “conversation” mode. Because “conversations” lead to relationships, my events have become known for providing a unique, more intimate networking experience. And apparently, this is what many business professionals have been craving.
DD: You credit some of your repeated successes in launching new businesses to your love of entrepreneurial energy and how you’ve had it since you were a teenager. Why do you think today’s students would benefit from thinking entrepreneurially as you did, even while still in high school?
KG: Entrepreneurial energy is a combination of passion, creativity and an “everything-is-possible/can-do” attitude. Even if someone is working within a company, this kind of energy will differentiate them from other staffers, particularly those who are in it for not much more than the paycheck.
Entrepreneurial energy is also extremely contagious. Want to start your own company? You’ll more easily attract the team you need to make it happen, whether investors, staff or partners, if you learned how to cultivate this energy at a young age.
Entrepreneurs also have to keep going when the safety net of a steady paycheck is not there. The experience gained from any entrepreneurial activity will be like nothing you can ever learn in school, and it can provide invaluable preparation for many other situations in life. Finally, entrepreneurial ventures are great for showing “who you are” to the world.
DD: At your networking events, you talk about the importance of networking authentically. What does that look like?
KG: The best networkers I know are genuinely curious about others. They want to know about another person’s life experiences, why they do what they do, what their interests and hobbies are, something about their family, and maybe even what they think about the new Italian restaurant down the street. When the intention is getting to know more about the person rather than what the person does, they create “real” relationships. When people sense genuine interest, they tend to open up and relax into a natural rapport. In this state, they naturally want to know what the other person is about, including what they do. This is when the question “what do you do?” comes from a place of genuine interest, rather than from one of obligation. This is “authentic” networking and it is where the stage is being set for a respectful and mutually-gratifying, long-term relationship.
DD: Once you’ve made some strong connections, how do you turn them into lifelong networks of friends, clients, and associates?
KG: You turn them into lifelong relationships by nurturing them. You take the initiative to keep in touch. You act as a “connector” and a resource. You recognize things that are important to them, including an anniversary, a child’s graduation, a promotion or a new home purchase. And you invite them into your world by opening up about whom you are and not just what your business is about. This happens over coffee, a phone call just to say “hello,” a day on the golf course.
DD: What are the benefits of networking if you are not in sales? It seems that everyone already has an accountant, PR firm, etc., and they are really not interested in meeting anyone new. Are the people you meet at networking events only interested in making a sale — no matter what they say?
KG: Yes, it is true that most people already have these service providers in place when you meet them, however it does not mean that their level of satisfaction is high. Let’s look for example at a recent study showing that 63 percent of those polled leave a business because of “perceived indifference.” In other words, they just didn’t feel they were appreciated.
People in this category, which as you can see is a very significant percentage, are prime candidates for making a switch. Sometimes it’s literally a matter of the right person showing up at the right time, or the right person staying in touch until it’s the right time.
In my view, the sales process has dramatically changed. Gone are the days of the “hard sell” – and so those who clearly show they are only interested in making the sale are going to have a very hard time at a networking event. See, to be a successful networker, you have to make your encounters about “conversations.” Nobody in that room wants to feel “advertised to.” Their head might be nodding up and down as if in agreement, but they’re really thinking, “is this person kidding me? ‘wonder what’s on TV tonight?’ or ‘how do I make a clean break here?” This is ineffective networking at its finest.
DD: Is there any way to distinguish what type of networking events are better than the others without going? It is hard to find time for all this and it can get pricy.
KG: I believe networking has to be part of a business professional’s marketing strategy – and if they don’t create the time and budget for it, their marketing strategy is not as effective as it could be. Entry fees for networking events vary and there are usually some that are free. I always charge a fee for events that I host and I’ve actually been thanked by many of my attendees for doing so. Their feeling is that someone who pays $20 or so for an event is a more “serious and committed” networker than those they find at ‘free’ events.
At the end of the day, there are good and bad networkers at just about any event you attend. That’s okay, because the goal should never be quantity, but quality. If you have six conversations and only two of them result in a relationship developing past the event, I’d say you had a very productive experience. Finally, I want to point out that networking happens everywhere – online, at the supermarket, with the person sitting next to you on a plane, at the doggie park with a fellow beagle owner. Great networkers are open to the possibility of connections taking place anywhere, any time.
DD: Is there different etiquette for networking in different parts of the country, as to handing out your card or following up with people? What is the etiquette?
KG: I’ve done business and participated in events all over the country. My belief is that there are universal principles that apply regardless of where you are, and it really comes down to some basic facts about human nature. Every person wants to feel listened to, respected, and appreciated. If you act on this with everyone you meet, you are setting the stage for developing the connections you make into strong relationships.
In terms of follow up, well this is a topic I am extremely passionate about and one where the overwhelming majority of networkers fall short. Again, I don’t believe the principles vary by location. I have very specific strategies for following up and I am frequently thanked for doing so. I use a combination of phone calls, email, and greeting cards. When I tell others about it, they are often amazed because there seems to be so much fear around “bugging” people or “not knowing what to say” in a follow-up call or note. I could go on and on about what effective follow-up looks like, but perhaps I can save that for another Q&A.
DD: How important is it to have a website or Facebook page? And in general, how does someone go about building a successful group like Connecting to Greatness? You describe it as building community.
KG: In today’s environment, having an online presence is critical. When I want to learn more about someone and they don’t have a website, I feel like they are behind the times and to some degree, they lose credibility in my mind.
Social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook not only allow for reconnecting with those in your past and of course connecting with those you’ve just met, they also foster community by allowing for the creation of groups and fan pages. When you join one of these groups, you automatically have common ground with every member and this makes initial conversations a breeze.
As for building a successful networking group, I believe there are three important elements: First, a clear intention of what the group’s purpose is; second, consistent high quality events; and third, strong leadership setting the tone. These three elements also set the stage for a strong community to develop.
At the end of the day, when you put more focus on building strong relationships than on simply ‘getting the sale,’ everything you do will be more rewarding, including your business revenues.
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