Usually, when people complain to me about having to network it’s because they feel it’s a waste of time. When we dig deeper into how they are networking, I almost always find that they are networking without a clearly defined purpose, goal, or desired outcome. Without these, there is no way to know with whom and where you should be networking. This leads to an incredible waste of time and energy.
Take 30 seconds and honestly answer these two questions.
1. How many times have you attended a networking event where you just show up and then look for people you know? I know I have, especially when I’m not in the mood to meet new people. Finding people I know allows me to stay in my comfort zone.
2. How many times have you attended a networking event where you had no idea what type of people would be there or how the event may benefit you but you decided to go so that you could mark the act of networking off of your “to-do” list for the month? Again, guilty as charged. I’ve even gone as far as just staying long enough to say I was there and then going back home.
One of the best ways you can be strategic in your networking efforts is to understand who you need to network with. To know, you must understand what you want to accomplish with your networking efforts.
Here are some common goals that women have for networking.
• Connecting with a specific person you have been trying to meet but may not have any connections to through other people.
• Helping a prospective or current client by introducing them to other people or gathering information that you can share with them.
• Looking for a group of like-minded people who feed your soul and give you energy and encouragement.
• Looking for new clients. (When I say looking for new clients this is not a green light to start giving sales pitches. There is nothing wrong with being in the same place as your target audience so that you can begin to cultivate relationships. Just resist the urge to makes sales pitches.)
• Building credibility. (Networking events are a great way to demonstrate your expertise by volunteering as a guest speaker.)
• Connecting with a prospective mentor.
• Powering up a social media campaign. A lot of times social media campaigns fall flat without the willingness of others to cross promote. Engaging with people who have access to your target audience and who are willing to share your posts will multiply your efforts.
So, use your goals or what you want to accomplish to drive your action steps. This is one of the things that will set you apart from other networkers. Not being strategic is what leads to wasting time and contributes to why you leave feeling like you didn’t get anything out of an event but food.
The more thought you put into your networking goals, the clearer it will become where you need to spend your time and who you need to spend it with.
So, what happens when you receive a meeting invitation from someone that doesn’t align with your networking strategy? Do you go any way to avoid burning any bridges? Or, do you decline the invitation to stay focused on what you need to accomplish.
Just say “no”!
It is perfectly acceptable to decline an invitation that isn’t in alignment. Saying “no” is key to not wasting time. It keeps you from wasting yours and it keeps you from wasting theirs. But how do you let them down without causing hard feelings? I have found these three steps to be the most professional way to decline an invitation.
1. Ask for details
It’s not unusual for me to receive an invitation to coffee from a relative stranger through social media sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Not always, but more often than not, it’s because they want to sell me something. (If you have ever attended one of my networking workshops you know that using this type of strategy is an incorrect way of building mutually beneficial relationships with people. But, I digress).
If I’m not familiar with the person or am familiar but unsure of their intentions, I will simply ask them. It can be as easy as saying, “My schedule is really tight over the next several weeks, is there something specific you wanted to discuss over coffee?” If their answer is not in alignment with your goals, then politely decline the invitation by using step 2.
2. Be honest
If what they are seeking doesn’t align with you then communicate that information in a polite and honest way. For instance, if they are a financial planner looking for new business but you already have a planner that you work with, then tell them.
“It is so nice of you to offer to share information about your services with me, but I already work with a financial planner that I am very happy with. I’m afraid that meeting would not be considerate of either of our time.”
Being honest allows them to update their records so as not to waste their time or your time any further. Then, following up with step three will allow you to end the conversation in a way that benefits them and leaves them with a good feeling about their interaction with you.
3. Offer resources
Even though your goals may not be in alignment with the person extending the invitation, try not to end the exchange with just a no. Every interaction is an opportunity to build a relationship even if there is no immediate benefit. This is what I mean. Using the financial planner example above, I always offer to be helpful to them even if I’m not a potential customer. I will ask them to forward their contact information and an overview of their services to me so that I can forward it to others when I’m asked for recommendations.
This ends the conversation on a positive note and maybe they will return the favor by referring me to someone in the future. Your offer will depend upon what they are seeking by inviting you to meet. So make sure you are offering something that helps them meet their goals.
There is no rule that says you have to accept every invitation you receive to meet people. Saying “no” in a professional way will keep you from wasting time, keep you focused on your goals, and earn you the respect of those who seek your attention.