Regardless of sector or industry, startups and large corporations alike are dependent upon relationships for lead and revenue generation. Yes, that's a sweeping statement, but it's an accurate one. Think about the last dozen or so campaigns you ran or sales calls you made. How many were predicated on a pre-existing relationship--either a client referral or a warm introduction through a mutual connection? Chances are, those exchanges were more successful than the cold calls that occupy valuable space in your sales funnel.

Savvy marketing and sales leaders understand that professional connections are tactical assets that can be deployed at every level of the conversion process. Here's the catch--you have to get really good at building connections before you can hope to leverage them. Some of that comes down to art, and some to science. But to start, there are three critical habits I've developed--and encourage every networker to master--to expand my relationship capital, and in turn, drive business at my firm.

1. Treat your network like a museum.

Snooty docents and enforced silence aside, your professional network should more closely resemble a museum or gallery than a raging house party; in other words, it should feel curated. Resist the urge to scatter your business cards like confetti, and work on getting face-to-face time with decision makers at your target organizations. At conferences, professional association meetings, and even at your own firm, seek out thought leaders, industry influencers, and individuals who operate their own well-crafted networks. By focusing on quality in your relationships, you'll end up committing less of your precious time while achieving better results.

2. Do your due diligence.

Whether you're on your way to a conference or a quick coffee meeting, it is absolutely critical that you do your homework with regard to your potential connections. It pays to flip through their media feeds, check out their alma maters, past employers, and the boards they currently sit on. It's less about having topics of conversation from which to draw than it is about finding common connections--friends, colleagues, and fellow alumni. These areas of overlap pave the way for warm introductions, which in turn result in sales closed or further introductions made.  

3. Never miss a chance to grant a favor.

The traditional view of networks is that they're treasure chests you mine for introductions, advice, and employment opportunities. Problem is, it's an old, outdated perspective. Your network is really one piece in a vast ecosystem of exchange, and according to thought leaders like Wharton professor Adam Grant, within this system it pays to be a giver, rather than a taker. By contributing to an overall environment of giving, you increase the odds that one day someone will do you a solid when you need it. The moral here: always make time for that informational interview, coffee meeting, or job recommendation--you'll really be doing yourself the favor.

The takeaway.

Like anything worth doing, relationship capital isn't built quickly or easily. It takes practice and the honing of a particular skill set. To build a strong, efficient network, you must learn to separate the high-priority relationships from the lower-level ones, be disciplined in researching your potential connections, and recognize the importance of saying yes to requests for favors. With that initial investment, you can build the kind of network that yields impressive returns--in leads, revenue, and professional opportunities--year after year.