Social networking may be all the rage, but online acquaintances are probably not going to put their reputations on the line to help you build your business. That takes a more personal touch.

A business "network" isn't about how many people know your name; it's about how many will send you customers or help you advance your career, according to Joanne Black, author of the bestseller No More Cold Calling.

According to Black, there are four types of people who will trust you enough to give you a referral. Here they are, listed in descending order of their "networking" value:

1. Your satisfied clients (present and past).

These are customers who have done enough business with you so that they know, beyond a doubt, that you're a valuable and trusted resource.

2. Your close friends and family.

Your intimates (it's hoped) know that you're trustworthy and are therefore willing to use their connections to help you out. These people are less valuable because they're probably a bit biased.

3. Individuals whom your clients, friends, and family have contacted on your behalf.  

In this case, you have a "residue of trust," because the original referrer has endorsed you. Because this is "one step removed," it's a weaker link.

4. Individuals whom you've met through talking with the individuals in Category Three.  

If you build a relationship at this point, these people begin to function as if they were in Category Three, thereby creating more networking opportunities.

The trick to building out your business network is first to get Categories One and Two to put you in touch with Category Three, and then use a telephone call or personal meeting to build a relationship with the people in Categories Three and Four.

As you build out your business network, you must remain constantly aware that you are NOT selling something. The process involves creating and strengthening a social connection. Sales pitches are completely counterproductive here.

When you contact individuals to create your network, the tone should be that of a meeting between friends (or potential friends) rather than the classic interaction between a seller and buyer.

To make this happen, somebody in your network must make the initial contact.

For example, if you want your brother-in-law to contact his former business partner (whom you want to add to your network), you get your brother-in-law to email the partner and suggest that the two of you get together to talk.

Important: Ask your brother-in-law (or anyone who's providing you with a networking referral) to get back to you to confirm that the action (like an email or call) has actually been taken.

To get the maximum benefit from the referral, follow up three times:

  1. Within one day of the referral meeting, contact your original contact with your thanks for the referral.
  2. After you've reached the new contact, send another thank-you to the person who referred you. (E.g., "You were right; Natalie is terrific!")
  3. If the referral results in some business taking place or even a further referral, send another thank-you to the original contact.

If you set aside a certain time every day to build up your personal business contacts, you'll eventually find that you know (and are trusted at least to some degree by) hundreds of people who can help you find new business and create new opportunities.

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