The ultimate Networking Strategy Guide to save you time (and heartache)

Probably the biggest waste of time I see lawyers, accountants and consultants do with their business development, is to network without a clear purpose or strategy. It isn’t helped by many firms asking their people to sub in for another person at the drop of a hat either.  Having a personal networking strategy that you can use to guide you with your networking activity is probably one of the biggest ways of saving business development time. As almost every single professional wants to save time in this area, this mammoth article takes you step-by-step to show you how to create your own winning networking strategy.

What is a networking strategy?

Firstly, what do we actually mean by networking strategies?

A networking strategy details how you will achieve your goals via your networking activities. A clear and concise networking strategy will allow you to make the decisions as to ‘what’ networking activities you will do, i.e. your networking plan. If you implement your networking plan, you will, if it all goes to plan, achieve your networking goals.

Now, that we have clarified our networking strategy, it’s useful to think of what we actually mean by effective networking. Many folks equate effective networking with working the room but this is just one of the tools in your networking kitbag!

Effective business networking is the process of finding, building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships.

As you can see from this definition, which will provide the framework for this article, networking strategies are more than just talking the talk! Here are all the components to help you build your successful business networking strategy. Click here to download your FREE networking plan (email required) taken from the bestselling and award-winning book “The Financial Times Guide To Business Networking“. 

5 stages to creating a winning networking strategy

There are five stages to creating an effective networking strategy:

  1. Goals – you first have to identify and set your networking goals – i.e. what do you want to achieve as a result of your networking activities?
  2. Audit – to improve, you then have to audit your current networking situation – i.e. assess the suitability of your current network, networking activities, keeping in touch strategies etc.
  3. Find – then you can start to look for new relationships to add to your network – i.e. who do you need to meet, and where and how are you going to meet them? Will you bump into them on LinkedIn or Twitter or by becoming a member of BNI or any other business networking group?
  4. Build – focus on building your new relationships – i.e. what will you do to progress the relationship from just a name, to a deep, strong and highly beneficial relationship? How will you choose who to progress the relationship? What will be your criteria for ‘A, B or C-listers’ or which introducers will be in your ‘inner,’ ‘middle’ or ‘outer circle?’
  5. Maintain – you need to maintain all of the relationships in your network – i.e. what will you do to keep your relationships ticking over? If your network never hears from you or sees you, the relationship will gradually wither and die, so this is your ‘keeping-in-touch’ strategy.

If you complete each stage of creating a networking strategy then your networking plan will almost write itself. To re-emphasise, the difference between your networking strategy is:

Your networking strategy tells you ‘how’ you will achieve your networking goals. Whereas your networking plan is what you will do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis and the projects/campaigns you will run to achieve your networking goals.

To help you build your networking strategy, here are the 5 steps in much more detail.

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Stage 1: Goals

Identifying your networking goals is a two-step process: the first step is to look at your overall business or career goals, then the second step is to identify and set the networking activity goals you will do to get there. First, ask yourself: What do you really want to achieve via your network? If you don’t have this big goal clear in your mind, it’s going to make it very difficult to make your networking activities, actually happen, because you are don’t have sufficient enough motivation to do any or some of these things:

  • Go into twitter daily.
  • Write a blog post weekly and send it out to your network.
  • Head out to a networking evening event after a long, and I mean long, hard day in the office.
  • Pick up the phone and speak to someone you haven’t connected to for a while.
  • Make the effort to go into LinkedIn regularly and join in the conversation.

Some examples of the ‘big’ goals I am talking about include:

  1. Use my network to generate referrals to build new recurring client work of £20k every month
  2. Use my network to find a new job in 6-18 months time
  3. Use my network to find a publisher who will commission me to write my new book

To help find your big goal for networking, it’s worth reflecting on the four reasons that people typically go networking:

  1. Build their support community
  2. Build their profile
  3. Find and win business
  4. Build their knowledge and expertise base

It’s absolutely fine to network for all, one or some of these reasons – just as long as you are clear about your motivation and how this helps you (all too often, professionals have a vague idea of why they are out networking, e.g. ‘to get known’). Before setting your ‘big’ networking goal, or goals, think about the different roles you play in the different facets of your life. For example, when I network I am:

  1. Aiming to find and win business, primarily through strategic partnerships – I deliberately look for people who are well connected to the professional services marketplace.
  2. Building my personal profile.
  3. Building my support community amongst the mothers at the school gate.

A good way of helping you identify your big networking goal is to finish this sentence:

I will use my network to …..

Complete this sentence for all the different roles you play in your life.

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Stage 2: Audit

Now that you have your ‘big’ networking goals identified, it is time to review your current network and networking activities for effectiveness before risking throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Many people think that they have to build a network from scratch. Actually, each of us naturally has our own network – and for many of us, there will be some great contacts who will be able to help us. For example, this could include people you have worked with in the past, whether on an assignment or within your firm. When I am running an event on networking, I often use an exercise to prove to the audience that they all have a network and are networking all the time. I ask the audience a series of questions, such as:

  • Who has phoned or texted a friend in the last fortnight?
  • Whose mother has called them? 
  • Who has read a blog post?
  • Who has logged into Facebook or LinkedIn?

Unsurprisingly, everyone in the audience will say yes to at least one of the questions if not all – which, as each of these actions is a form of networking, just goes to show that we are all networking all the time. Just because you have a network and are networking all the time, doesn’t mean to say that you are doing it in an effective manner though (for example, spending time with the right people and in the right places). This is why the second stage of building a networking strategy is to do a networking audit.  The best way to do a network audit is to draw out your network map. Here are instructions on how to map out your network so that you can see how you are connected to your contacts. Have a look through your networ, and answer the following questions:

  1. Who is currently well-placed to help me achieve my network goal? What help do I need from them?
  2. Where are there gaps in my network, of the types of people who are well-placed to help me achieve my networking goals?

Now you have looked at your current network, it’s time to look at your current networking activities. Ask yourself:

  1. What activities are you doing, such as membership of a professional networking group, which are helping you connect with the right types of people?
  2. What activities are you doing which are helping you achieve your networking goals, whether personal or professional?
  3. What activities are not working for you?

Now that you have done your networking audit, write down the following:

  1. What will I start, stop or continue with my networking activities to help me achieve my networking goals?
  2. What relationship plans will I put in place to build or maintain relationships within my current network to help me achieve my networking goals?

Very often many professionals, after completing this audit, realise that their current network contains many of the types of people that can actively help them achieve their networking goals. Actually, unless I am working with very junior professionals or people changing profession or professional circumstances, many find that they need to focus on building or maintaining relationships in their network rather than finding new ones.

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Stage 3: Find

I often tell a story when delivering a keynote or masterclass on effective business networking about George Clooney. The story goes as follows: People are always asking me who I want to be – I guess this is an occupational hazard of writing a book on networking! I always answer, George Clooney. People always wonder why I answer George Clooney? The fact is, my ultimate goal is to become a kept woman. George Clooney represents someone who could short cut my way to achieving this goal. Now, everyone has people like ‘George’ in their network, people who can help you shortcut your way to achieving your goals. Typically these are people who are exceptionally well connected to your target market. Sometimes, it may not be obvious.

For example, one of my ‘Georges’ is a good friend called Mike Fieldhouse, who owns and runs a digital marketing agency, reality house. Now, when I tell you that his agency specialises in working with lawyers and accountants, does it become slightly clearer (given my professed specialism in working with lawyers and accountants) why Mike is actually a ‘George’ for me? Referrals from Mike made up ~15% of my company’s turnover in 2012. Now, go back to your network map that you drew up in the audit stage of this process. Who are the people who can help you achieve your networking goals who are not yet on your map?

At this stage, you may not know their name but know their company name and likely role. Or you may just know that you are looking out for someone who is well connected to your target market and likely to be involved in these types of activities. Your task at this stage in the process of defining your networking strategy is to brainstorm and identify the following:

  • Activities which will bring you into contact with your ‘Georges’ and missing connections on your networking map.
  • Where your George may hang out – both online and offline.

Now, rank all the activities by which ones are most likely to help you bump into the people you need to add into your network. Pick the top 3-5 activities to focus on and add these into your daily, weekly and monthly networking activity plan.

Stage 4: Build

Sadly, many professionals viewpoint of networking is it is all about the process of ‘finding’ contacts. I am reminded of the great quote by, Rob Brown, a good friend of mine: Stop counting contacts, start counting conversations. If you pulled open your desk drawer, how many business cards would you see where you would think…. damn, I should have got back to them months ago? You see, that’s probably the biggest mistake professionals and small business owners make with their networking activities. They focus too much on finding contacts rather than deepening and maintaining the relationships which will help them achieve their networking goals. Winning networking strategies tell you that once you have identified who you need to meet, the next stage is to categorise them. I use a simple, A, B, C system in ‘The FT Guide To Business Networking:’

  • A-lister: Someone who is likely to be able to help you achieve your networking goals in the short and medium-term.
  • B-lister: Someone who is maybe able to help you achieve your networking goals in the medium and long-term.
  • C-lister: Someone who is unlikely to be able to help you achieve your networking goals in the long-term.

You may have a different classification, but the important thing is you have a classification for your contacts.

In your networking strategy, you need to decide on what you will do as a result of meeting an A, B or C-lister. As a starter for 10, this is what I suggest:

  • You ask to connect with everyone on LinkedIn and Twitter (after all, circumstances can always change).
  • For all your A-listers, put in place a rolling 3-month relationship plan which has diarised next steps.
  • You have a quick and easy way of staying in contact with your B-listers.

Your aim with your relationship plan is to deepen the relationships which matter to you. Most people realise that not everyone is created equal in their network. In fact, the state of your relationship can be defined as one of 5 levels, as per my 5-level relationship level model:

Level 1: “identify”

At this level, you have just become aware of this contact. Maybe, someone has mentioned them in conversation, perhaps you have seen a tweet of them or perhaps they are on an attendance list of an event you are attending.

Level 2: “connect”

At this point you have physically or virtually met a contact, and started a one or two-way conversation, i.e. you have connected. For example, you may have talked to them at a face to face networking event, or exchanged some tweets or posts within an online forum.

Level 3: “engage”

At this point, you have taken a conscious decision to strengthen the relationship and move beyond small talk. This means that you have taken the time to have a one to one meeting with them, whether in person or by phone.

Level 4: “collaborate”

The trust has built within the relationship to the point where you have agreed to help each other, pass referrals, and potentially actively look for ways to work together.

Level 5: “inner circle”

The relationship is now such that you have worked together and regularly recommend each others’ services. There is a strong possibility that your relationship has moved from a purely professional relationship into a personal friendship.

Think about people in your network who you consider to be your A-listers or potential clients. Your relationship needs to be at least at level 3.  At what level is the state of your relationship with them?

Who do you need to spend more time with to increase the level of trust and collaboration in the relationship? It’s all very well having relationship plans for the folks who matter to you. However, you need to actively implement these plans. My recommendation is that every month you sit down with all your relationship plans. Every month, check you have 3 months of the right level of contact planned and in your diary – now, extend your relationship plans by another month. If you have admin assistance available to you, use them to book in your planned meetings and events you will attend.

Step 5: Maintain 

Think back to your friends at school – how many of them are you still in contact with? Now those that you have lost contact with, do you feel able to pick up the phone and speak with them? I’m guessing not. So, what has made the difference with your friends from school who you feel able to still pick up the phone and talk to? Yes, regular communication. Without regular communication, your relationships will slip back and lose their usefulness. Therefore, a key part of your networking strategy needs to be how you will keep in touch with your network. Here are some ideas of how to stay in touch with your network:

  1. Make sure you are connected to them via LinkedIn and Twitter.
  2. Put all your key contacts into a list on Twitter which you regularly check and converse with.
  3. Regularly go into LinkedIn and ‘like’ or ‘comment’ on your network’s updates.
  4. Give your network the chance to converse with you online by being active and asking engaging questions.
  5. Find out what your key contacts are interested in and regularly send them articles which they will find valuable.
  6. Send physical birthday and Christmas cards (the physical is key here).

Those are just ideas. “What will you do to keep in touch with your network?” “Who will you also keep in touch with in your network?”

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To help you build your own networking strategy and save time with your business development, how about downloading our free guide to building your own personal networking strategy?

Create your networking strategy and plan and never look back

Having a networking strategy is one thing, but actively implementing it is what will take it from being a concept into something which helps you build your client portfolio or achieve other networking goals.  Although this blog has made creating networking strategies seem like arduous work, having a clear purpose and strategy for your business development will make a world of difference. Not only will it save you a lot of time but it will give you a lot of results too. Click here to download your FREE networking plan (email required) taken from the bestselling and award-winning book “The Financial Times Guide To Business Networking“.