For many businesses, and certainly throughout the insurance and financial services fields, the process of meeting new people and expanding our professional networks is key to success. Though this past year has put a serious damper on the traditional ability to shake hands and build new relationships, avenues still exist for making connections and many of the principles for best practice in networking remain the same.
As someone who is still in the relatively early stages of my career, I take an active role in network building and relationship maintenance, regarding it as a fundamental aspect of my job. While I don’t claim to be a guru on the subject, I can relate some tips and techniques that have worked for me as I proactively try to expand my reach and connection base before, during, and after the pandemic.
General Best Practices
Don’t go it alone: It’s simply conventional wisdom that you can get more introductions and make more inroads if you are working as part of a team. With a teammate by your side, you can go into any situation with an advocate and someone to play off of. Network building is about personal connections. With two people, the chance of finding personality cohesion with an outside party or potential lead is doubled.
Do your homework: In my line of work, when you have limited windows of opportunity to engage with people at industry events or online, it pays to never go into an interaction cold. Find out who is registered for an event ahead of time, target individuals who you would like to connect with, and brainstorm ways in which you could work with one another. If you have a partner with you, strategize with them ahead of time to discern who would be a better personality fit for potential connections.
Give don’t take: Ask yourself, “what does an ideal referral look like for this individual?” How can your work help them, not the other way around? People like to talk about themselves, so expect to ask questions and listen more than talk. To gain trust and be memorable, stay passionate and interested and keep conversations light and not all about business. Stay away from politics and sensitive subjects with a focus on gaining their trust first—business comes later.
Follow up with purpose: Once you meet someone of interest, schedule a follow up meeting within a week or two, while memory of the event is still fresh. When you reach out again, include applicable industry articles, links to something you discussed, or reference to a personal connection—again offering rather than asking for something. Follow them on LinkedIn or relevant social platforms and send a nice note for reference. It is also great practice to keep a database of contacts, connections, and leads with records of where you met them, what they like, where they are in life, and any personal insights you may have that may relate to doing business with them. Regularly updating this information will be key to remaining actively engaged with network building.
Networking Through a Pandemic
Face the challenges: It’s safe to say that whatever your industry may be, conferences, networking events and general socializing opportunities are not what they used to be. Though there’s an inkling of a more open future on the horizon, we can expect that the remainder of 2021 will not see a return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person opportunities as we were used to. However, opportunities do remain! Many, if not most, established industry events have adopted an online presence using virtual meeting rooms and connectivity software to keep pace with the times. Online events now often host smaller breakout room sessions where limited groups of likeminded individuals can meet to discuss targeted topics or get to know one another. It is at these events where you can still develop those personal connections and open the door to new opportunity.
Don’t force it: The same rules of etiquette for in-person networking remain online. Whether interacting on social media or talking with someone in a virtual meeting room, authenticity will usually win the day. Only follow and pursue network groups that you care about, know something about, and have something to offer to. The more you put yourself out there, the greater the chance that you can build rapport and foster direct engagements with potential connections. Follow your passions, be genuine and always respect the boundaries of others.
If you can’t find it, build it: One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear, is that successful networking is a long game. If your efforts online fail to bridge a connection to the perceived groups and individuals you are looking for—consider starting your own networking group. One of the most rewarding actions I’ve focused on this last year, is to build my own online groups as a co-founder with a like-minded partner. This has allowed us to follow all of the tenets of good networking discussed above, while setting the tone and topics for our own gatherings. By regularly putting out content, insight, and discussion of interest to us, we have attracted people who share our passions and developed some new relationships which could become long term business contacts.
Networking needs to be viewed as a journey, not a destination. Success will not come on day one so you need to be persistent. Be genuine, give more than you take, and don’t give out all the “secret sauce” you have to offer in the first interaction. Whatever the months ahead bring, and whether you’re connecting with individuals online or in person, remember to be yourself and have fun with it.
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