New Voices - Networking 101: Tips for Getting Ahead in the Business World
By: Barbara Schaefer McDuffie, director, business development, Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP
Networking seems like such a natural activity for professionals in the commercial real estate industry. We are an intelligent, politely aggressive and outgoing group of entrepreneurs. But walking into a crowded room of people and not seeing a familiar face can be intimidating even to a “Type A” extrovert. How do you overcome intimidation? Read on to glean a few ideas and valuable guidelines to boost confidence.
First Impressions Say a Lot
When initially meeting someone, 93 percent of the first impression is based on non-verbal data such as appearance and body language -- only seven percent is influenced by the spoken word! Not that what is said is unimportant. After the initial impression, what is said is very important and becomes the substance and personality.
Attire Rules of the Road
In a recent meeting with a well-known national developer, the subject of women’s attire came up. The developer commented that business attire needs to actually look like business attire and that too many women are not dressing appropriately. They are dressing more for a cocktail party or clubbing event. Image and reputation go hand-in-hand.
As Emily Post had stated on appropriate dress:
- Represent your company
- Keep it understated
- Dress for the job you want
- Keep it professional
- Keep it neat
- Keep it clean
- Don’t reveal too much
- Dress for the time of day
- Don’t be a fashion victim
Another helpful hint is to divide your closet into three sections of attire: work, weekend and evening – and that includes shoes! I always appreciate casual Friday and “jeans day” more when I see men in a collared shirt with their shirt tails tucked in and their shoes polished!
Be Prepared for Networking Opportunities
Always go to an event or meeting armed with a solid knowledge of the audience, current events and business acumen. Remember that first impressions do count, and you only have one opportunity to make a good one.
When meeting new people, be interesting and interested. People love to be asked questions – it’s an ice breaker for them as well as for you. Once engaged in a conversation on a given topic such as a vacation, March Madness or whatever the season dictates for a current “safe” topic, the rest will flow. Simply find common interests! If it doesn’t feel like the conversation is going well, an easy way to disengage is to politely excuse yourself, saying you don’t want to monopolize their time. Alternatively, grab a colleague and introduce them and then excuse yourself.
Think about the best networking opportunities. Is it a one-on-one meeting over a meal or a drink? Is it an industry association gathering or serving on a committee? Philanthropic interests? Determine where the prospective clients are involved, and determine your comfort zone.
When joining an organization, find your passion and where you can contribute the most, and then get involved in order to maximize the return. Some may be more comfortable in a small group rather than networking at a large event. Choose how you spend your time wisely.
Cultivate and Develop Relationships
Once involved in an organization or a community, start building relationships. There are simple keys to building a lasting relationship:
- Keep in touch
- Follow up and follow through
- Be sincere
- Send appropriate articles
- GIVE before you expect to receive
- Be patient!
Offer to help people. Connecting the dots is an exercise that will continuously come back to you as an unexpected bonus. Assist people searching for a job or their children looking for summer internships. It’s another opportunity to reach out to someone you wish to develop a relationship with, without asking for business, but rather offering an opportunity.
Know the difference between like, respect and trust. They are all important in developing relationships.
Internal networking with peers is a great way to practice conversation skills. Happy hours are a good time to practice working the crowd and talking to as many people as you can. People are often surprised at what they learn about colleagues when engaged in casual conversation. The common bond that comes from discovering people’s interests, learning about their families, where they went to school, how they like to spend their vacations are all part of building a relationship.
The Road to Respect
Become an expert on a specific market, deal structure, legislation affecting the market — basically anything that will provide recognition as a thought leader. Don’t be afraid of speaking engagements for the target audience. A colleague recently put together an entire program on tax in the Washington, D.C., market for a local real estate organization. Not a “sexy topic,” but it was highly acclaimed and elevated her presence among peers and clients. I predict she will end up Board president of the organization.
An often overlooked, but incredibly important area of networking and business development is etiquette! Proper table manners can make or break an impression when entertaining during a meal. The same goes for happy hours and office parties when drinking with colleagues or prospective clients. Be conscious of your consumption so as not to be the talk of the office the next morning. A good rule of thumb is to remember that you are representing your firm at work, at events, and even on weekends. One never knows when you might run into an important prospect or client so always put out the impression that generates respect.
The next important concept is trust. Given the frequency of high-level conversations with clients and prospects, maintaining confidentiality is key. An excellent book is “The Trusted Advisor” by David Maister, a well-published expert on professional service management and relationships.
Finally, it is imperative to return phone calls and emails within 24 hours, preferably in the same day. This is an important indicator of respect. Equally important is always being on time, or better yet, early for meetings. Reverence of someone’s time will earn respect and build confidence that people can rely on you.
Networking and business development comes easy for some, but even if your card does not read “business development,” it’s what we all do each day. Building client relationships to further careers is an art that can be achieved, but like any skill it takes some tools and it takes practice.