Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I attend many conventions, where I meet with a variety of people and get a lot of business cards. My usual networking M.O. is to follow up with an email asking people about themselves, their company, what they are working on, and--because I'm trying to move into a new field--if they might be able to point me to some others in their company who specialize in the field that I wish to move into. However, what I've noticed is that I rarely receive a response, and I'm not sure if I should re-email them or not. Recently, I've tried to connect with these contacts on LinkedIn, but not everyone has a LinkedIn profile and sometimes I don't get responses. Do you have any suggestions for how to better network at conventions?
From what you've said here, I gather that you're making it too hard for people to respond to you. You're asking them a ton of questions that take time to answer (about themselves, their company, and what they are working on), before you're getting to what you really want to know, which is just whether they can connect you with someone in your new field.
I know you're doing this because you don't want to seem like you're only interested in what you can get from them, and it's polite to show interest in others. But the reality is, many if not most busy people don't want to answer a bunch of out-of-the-blue questions from a near-stranger about what they're working on. When I get those emails, I mentally groan, and I bet others do too.
Instead, show respect for their time and get straight to the point, and you might get a better response rate. You just need a one-sentence intro like, "We met at the XYZ conference in March, and I really appreciated the time you took to talk with me," and then you can go straight to what you're asking for. Most people will appreciate that you're being direct and not trying to hide the request in the middle of questions that aren't the real purpose for your email.
Also, if you're just asking them to connect you to people at their company who work in your field, be sure to be clear about why. If you're vague, people will assume you might be hitting up their co-workers for a job, and they won't necessarily want to facilitate that when they don't know you well enough to vouch for you. You'll be better off explaining that you're hoping to get specific questions answered, or insight into Topic X, or whatever it might be.
And if you don't always have a goal in mind and instead are just trying to build the relationship, find ways to do it that don't demand their time in the way that you've been doing. Send an article that you think would interest them, ask for their insight into something you're genuinely curious about (but don't come up with questions for the sake of questions, because that's not a good use of their time), or tell them something specific you sincerely admire about them (if this is genuine, most people will really appreciate it), or otherwise talk to them as one professional to another.
But drop the extraneous, out-of-nowhere "tell me about your company and your projects" questions. I know that lots of networking books recommend that kind of thing, but as you're finding out, busy people--especially busy people who don't really know you--usually just want to cut to the chase and get one clear request. There is a time for those getting-to-know-you questions, but they're most effective when they come up naturally; they don't usually work in this type of email.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to email@example.com.