If you routinely return from a networking event with a pocketful of business cards that aren't useful to you, you need to rethink your strategy. While it's good to make friends, it's better to make money. And making the right connections with the right people to expand your business requires focus and discipline.

"One or two business cards from real prospects are worth exponentially more than a drawer full from companies that aren't in your target market," says Craig Bentley, an executive coach and senior communications consultant with Bates Communications, Inc., a Boston-based communications consulting firm.

The following pages will review how networking can help you increase sales, whom you should network with and where, and the importance of following up with networking prospects.

How to Network to Increase Sales: The Importance of Networking

Networking is important in sales, whether you are selling products, services, or yourself -- you as a potential consultant, partner, or someone they will refer to other potential contacts.

"The component that is critical is just going out there and making yourself known," says Ellisa Brenneman, the founder of Ethos 360, a consulting business based in Portland, Oregon, that helps entrepreneurs and small businesses with a range of services, from business planning to business coaching. "It's a form of advertising like any other; that's how I approach it. You're advertising yourself as you're introducing yourself, whether it's for how you can help a business, developing sales leads, or simply networking to meet others. It's a basic form of advertising, but probably the cheapest."

The key focus of your networking should be the building of business relationships. Sales will often follow but first you have to put down the cornerstone by establishing business relationships that provide you with the opportunity to meet other people and expand your contact list.

Even in the Internet age, that personal touch still matters. "It is a digital age and there are a lot of options to do business far from where we are located," Brenneman says. "But it may be human nature to want to see the person you're giving money to or to know there is someone who can help you -- that there is a face to the service, a face behind the voice."

Dig Deeper: How to Build Your Personal Brand

How to Network to Increase Sales: Whom to Network with – and Where

The first step to networking to increase sales is to select the right group, the right people, or the right event to join or attend. You have to target your market. You want to be mingling with the people who are interested in what you bring to the table, in what you have to say.

Determine the top 10 contacts that you want/need to meet. Before you add a networking event to your calendar, take a few minutes to consider your networking strategy, Bentley says. "Who are 10 people you really need to get to know?" he says. "Be clear as to why you want to meet them and what they can do for your business.  Most importantly, be sure that you have thought through in advance what value you can deliver to make such a connection is worthwhile for them as well."

Figure out how to meet them. Now that you have identified key contacts, set about figuring out where will you find them and have an opportunity to interact with them? "Do they frequent events and business outings to which you have access?" Bentley says. "If you don't have access, do you know others who attend these events and could sponsor your participation?" Breakfasts, lunches, cocktail hours, and even taking your pet to the dog park are all potential opportunities to get know the right people for your business.

Brenneman advises to look at the program or attendee list for conferences or trade shows and scope out who is going to be there -- which vendors, competitors, or industry gurus -- and make a mental list of to whom you should be introducing yourself. "It's something everyone should be doing -- keeping an eye out for who is there and what your target market is," she says. "They can be competitors, people with whom you could potentially have partnerships or affiliations with."

There are other ways to meet people to network with, as well. Bentley suggests creating a "Business Tree." "List your top 10 contacts across a sheet of paper, and make a list below of all the people you know," he says. "Draw lines connecting the people you know to people on your top 10 whom they know. You might be surprised at how many points of connection you already have with those you have identified as your top 10."

Prepare for meeting your top prospects. It's always important to make a good first impression, especially when networking for business. "When you have engineered an opportunity to meet one of your top prospects, don't give your normal 'elevator pitch' -- after all, who wants to be 'pitched' to?" Bentley says. "Rather, think about making a connection. What is important to them? What can you offer that will make their life better? Do your homework to learn as much as possible about this individual and his or her business and key business issues."

Have a great conversation. Make sure you've taken the time to prepare an introduction of yourself and your business and also prepared some great questions to ask before you engage your networking prospect. "Too often, we try to impress others with what we know, with what we do, and how we can solve others' problems," Bentley says. "And we do this over and over even if we come to recognize that this approach doesn't usually work very well. You want them to talk about themselves while you listen attentively, guiding the conversation by your questions, not your explanations."

You can talk about anything -- a new report about the industry, the conference, the weather. Make sure it's a professional and interesting and memorable conversation. "Just be prepared," Brenneman says. In the back of your head, you still need to "understand what you're selling and what you're working for."

Dig Deeper: Leaving a Memorable Impression

How to Network to Increase Sales: Follow up with Your Networking Contact

While many communication tools are great time-savers, they have resulted in business becoming more and more impersonal. "If you want prospects and others to notice you, be sure you keep the personal touch," Bentley says.

It's important to follow up on making contact with a networking prospect. Send a handwritten note. Send a card. Send an e-mail or even an invitation to become a contact through a professional online social network. "My recommendation is to strike while the iron is hot," Brenneman says. Don't let more than a week go by before following up the meeting. "Try not to call people that you met six months back who are likely to say, 'Who are you again?'"

Each business relationship needs to be judged independently as to what step you need to take next. If you discussed business during your introduction and left it that you would follow up and schedule a meeting, a call and/or follow-up e-mail are appropriate. If you send an initial e-mail or note and don't hear back, you may want to place a call or send another e-mail, perhaps with some industry news that is relevant to what you discussed. But don't persist to the point of being annoying.
"It's a relationship like any other human relationship. You want to keep contacts warm but you also don't want to irritate them," Brenneman warns.

Over time, it may be appropriate to take a moment to send a handwritten note to congratulate others on a business development or personal success or send a card to express a personal concern or to let them know that you are thinking of them. "As you look to build your networks, these personal gestures will get you noticed much more quickly than another e-mail blast or similar high-tech touch," Bentley says.

If you are going to drive higher sales growth for your business, you must make a dedicated and continuing commitment to networking. Constantly revise your top 10 list, Bentley says, adding new names as you successfully connect with those on your list. "If you stick to your game plan, your networking will become a profitable use of your time," he says, "and will help you increase sales for years to come."

Dig Deeper: How to Use Social Networking Sites to Drive Business

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