Networking can be a powerful way to build your business, but not when it doesn’t result in new leads or clients. That was the problem for Kyle, a web developer who spent a lot of time going to networking events and never seeing any benefit. Before giving up completely he sought my help.
After playing tennis one afternoon, Kyle and I hung out in the clubhouse to talk about his problem. Networking can be tough, and there are many ways to mess it up, so to get a better idea of where I could help Kyle, I asked him to fill me in on his efforts. He told me he’d learned from a seminar that networking should be about the other person, not you.
“I’ve been following that advice,” Kyle said. “I’m always asking people how I can help them, but it hasn’t been working.”
After Kyle gave me a detailed rundown of a recent networking conversation he’d had, I could tell that while he was doing everything he could to make it about the other person, he was not doing one of the most important things.
To help him see where he was falling down, I changed the subject and asked him who—of the many people we knew in common—he most enjoyed hanging out with.
“Easy,” he said, “Rich.” I was hoping he would say that. Everyone who knew Rich loved him.
The most special person in the world
We then talked about Rich for a while, all his wonderful qualities—how funny he is, how caring and empathetic. How he’s always there for you. Then Kyle said another thing I was hoping he would say: “He always makes me feel awesome.”
“Me too,” I said. “I feel like the most special person in the world when I’m around him.”
I then told Kyle that it was no coincidence that Rich makes us both feel so special and that we both think he’s awesome. The two are directly related. How we feel about somebody is based on how they make us feel. Our judgment about somebody tends to have this very subjective element. I’m not saying Rich isn’t a fantastic person, but we wouldn’t think so highly of him if he didn’t make us feel great.
The rush of feeling great
“It’s also no coincidence,” I said, “that Rich is the best networker I know. And that’s because whenever someone meets Rich they want to see him again—to get that rush of feeling great about themselves.”
We could all become better networkers if we learn from Rich and focus on making everyone we meet feel great. “So,” I said to Kyle, “you were on the right track when you said that networking is about the other person. But you didn’t have the full answer, which is that it’s about how the other person feels.”
“So, I should start off by complimenting people to make them feel good?” Kyle asked.
Now we were getting into tricky territory, because it’s important to avoid coming across as fake and smarmy, which of course won’t engender the positive feelings you’re hoping for. As I explained to Kyle, you want to make a genuine connection with another person. That’s what Rich does. And while there are lots of ways Rich makes people feel good, three of them stand out.
In Rich’s first conversation with someone, the other person does most of the talking. I would guess about three times as much. That’s because Rich is asking questions and listening to the answers. But he’s not asking questions like a robot or like he’s interrogating someone. He’s asking questions that show he really cares and wants to know more about the person. And he’s really listening, not pretending to listen, which is clear to the other person when Rich makes references to things they said earlier. He also expresses empathy and understanding, rather than offering opinions or solutions, which is what a lot of people tend to do.
For example if someone tells him they’ve been flying all over the place for the past few weeks, Rich might comment about how exhausting that sounds, or ask about how the jet lag has affected them. What he doesn’t do is try to solve the problem by suggesting something like videoconferencing to cut down on air travel.
When you listen to someone in the caring way Rich does, you make them feel good because most people enjoy talking about themselves and feeling understood.
Yes, compliments can make someone feel good, but they’ll backfire if the person thinks you’re paying them one to achieve some objective. So give a compliment if it comes from a good place and won’t be perceived as insincere. By watching Rich, I’ve picked up some good advice, which is to make the compliment a small one and to make it about something you actually know about the person, which is easy to do when you follow the first tip about listening. For example, to the frequent flyer, Rich might remark on the person’s stamina. Or, he might invite them to compliment themselves by asking them how they get the energy to keep up that pace.
3. Ask for help
Another powerful way to make people feel good is to ask for help. When I told Kyle this, he looked at me with disbelief, saying that it went against what he’d learned in his networking seminar.
“I’m supposed to offer my help, not ask for theirs,” Kyle said.
I nodded, changing the subject. “Hey, your forehand was awesome today. Do you mind showing me how you get such powerful topspin?”
“Sure,” he said with a big smile as he started pulling his racket out of his bag.
Before he got going, I asked him how my request for help made him feel.
He looked at me and laughed once he figured out my ploy. “Yeah, I felt pretty awesome,” he said.
“Do you think you would have felt as awesome if I offered to help you with your serve?”
“Unless it’s done in the right circumstances,” I said, “offering help can trigger a number of negative responses in people. Most people prefer to present an image of control and strength, especially in front of strangers, and when you offer to help you threaten that. You can come across like you think you’re above them, and nobody wants to feel like your underling. Offering help works well if the other person has asked for it or is open to receiving it. I know you mean well, but perhaps your offers for help haven’t been made with the right setup.
“Asking for help is a different story. Most people are flattered by it. Unlike offering help, which can make someone feel like you’re putting them down, asking for help lifts someone up. It makes them feel like they’ve got something special to offer others. More than that, they will want to spend more time with you. Ben Franklin discovered this counter intuitive truth, which is known as the Ben Franklin Effect.”
A piece of advice—when asking for help, focus on an area in which the person you’re asking has expertise. Here again, listening comes into play because it gives you the chance to learn about the other person’s special skills and talents. And—bonus—you’ll benefit from whatever help they give you.
A clearer objective
Kyle followed these networking tips. He liked having a clearer objective than he had before. Instead of a muddy “make it about the other person” his focus was “make the other person feel good.” He didn’t see an immediate impact on his business, but he did develop some ongoing relationships and over the course of a few months a handful of people became clients or referred him to good prospects. His business was at last seeing some big growth from his networking efforts.
The big takeaway: If you can make the person you want to network with feel great about themselves, they’ll think you’re great. And because they’ll want to relive how awesome you made them feel, the door will be open for you to develop the relationship further. So go out there and start spreading some good vibes. And keep in mind the secret that Ben Franklin observed—that asking for advice inspires people to like you.
If you want to share some of your own networking experiences, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.
Author’s note: this post is based on a business owner I have coached. I’ve changed his name and some telling details.
For other stories like this—including one on how I once showed Kyle how positive thinking was ruining his sales—step into The Cowper Files.
Donald Cowper is a Small Business Writer at FreshBooks. He’s a successful entrepreneur, an experienced coach and the coauthor of two bestselling business books—Mega-Selling and The 8 Best Practices of High-Performing Salespeople. He is also the coauthor of Breaking the Time Barrier, the popular book on how to charge what you’re really worth.
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