During last week's teleconference on succeeding as a freelancer, sponsored by CurrentMom.com and the Asian American Journalists Association, the panelists kept returning to the same advice: you must have a strong network. (If you missed it, I'd recommend listening to the replay of the teleconference or downloading it to listen at your leisure.)
And yet I felt we didn't have enough time to discuss how to network or the common networking mistakes. So I'm taking this opportunity to address the networking mistakes that I've seen most often. (And yes, I've made these all myself at some point in my career.)
Networking Mistake #1: Talking and Not Listening
On the call, I mentioned that networking is as much about listening to your contact as it is telling her what you need for success in your career. I can't emphasize this point enough.
So many budding entrepreneurs come to me saying, "I have a great idea for a product or service! But I can't seem to get anyone to buy it…" They are failing to listen to their clients, customers or networking contacts.
When you meet with prospective clients, in addition to telling them how great you are and what your product or services will do for them, you must spend at least as much time listening. Ask what their biggest challenges are. After explaining your areas of expertise, ask an open ended question to see where they might be most in need of your work.
Perhaps you prefer to do one kind of work, but they have more need for a slightly different kind. If you pigeonhole yourself in the first kind, you'll never have the opportunity to show them what else you can do. In my field, so many freelance writers pitch editors big story ideas that would be cover stories or long features. They're missing the chance to demonstrate their abilities by tackling the smaller, less-sexy pieces that editors need to produce in higher quantities. Once you develop that strong working relationship, the client is more likely to rely on you for the larger projects that you want to perform.
Moreover, when you listen as much as you talk, you become a valuable networking contact rather than just someone looking for a step up the ladder. Think about ways you can help your contact -- in this economy, even people more senior in your field can benefit from referrals or tidbits of information you've collected along the way.
If you learn, and remember, what your networking contacts' concerns are, chances are you'll be able to help them down the line. Not only is this good karma, it makes you the person whose phone calls and emails will actually be returned.
Networking Mistake #2: Giving Up Too Soon
Another common networking mistake is to make contact once and then drop off the map. Think about it: how many people that you've met once do you actually remember?
To make an impression, you must meet someone on multiple occasions over the course of some time. On our call, freelancer Arnessa Howell mentioned that she saw one prospective client at an annual conference for several subsequent years in a row. Every time, she walked over and said hello, reminded him of her areas of expertise, and said she'd love to work for him. At holiday time, she sent a cheerful greeting card. Finally, after years of this persistence, he called her up with an assignment -- which led to more work!
This is why networking groups are so helpful. If you network with the same group of people once a month or once a quarter, you get to know their interests, style, professionalism and preferred work. It makes it that much easier to refer work to them, and vice versa.
I recently met with a mover to get an estimate of the cost to move our belongings to a new house. After he explained his quote to me, he asked whether I needed any work done in the new place. Not surprisingly, I did -- so he left me with names of a flooring guy, contractor and landscaper. Turns out they're in a networking group together. I'm sure that somewhere down the line, those contacts refer work back to him as well.
Networking Mistake #3: Failing to Follow Through
When you attend a conference, the best speakers are usually mobbed after their presentation with people wanting a business card or a moment of their time. But you may be surprised to learn that very few of these people actually follow through by emailing or calling the speaker to follow up. Those who do -- especially those who have something interesting or useful to say -- definitely stand out in memory.
It's so important simply to follow through on the contacts you make at a conference or networking event. Don't let business cards gather dust in your desk. Use them!
Some people have a system for regularly being in touch with their contacts. Maybe it's calling three people every day, or devoting one day a week to networking. As I've mentioned before, social media maven Peter Shankman takes time each morning to see which of his Facebook friends are celebrating their birthday and to wish them well.
Most importantly, when someone does help you with a referral or networking assistance, it's vital to thank them. At the very least, send an email or make a quick phone call. Even better: send an inexpensive gift (chocolate is always welcome) or a hand-written card to show your gratitude.
Have you made one of these networking mistakes? What other blunders do you see people making?