By Jason Gillikin | February 26, 2012
A few weeks ago my best friend and I were seated in the lounge of a smoke shop near his office. As we were puffing on our fine cigars and enjoying a dram of oh-so-tasty Scotch, we were joined by a local real-estate agent. It was a typical exchange; my friend was already acquainted with the newcomer, so he introduced me and the three of us enjoyed a few minutes of friendly conversation. Serendipitous
When it was time to leave, the agent pulled me aside and gave me his business card and encouraged me to give him a call if I ever needed real-estate assistance in central Michigan. I smiled and took the card and shook his hand.
Thing is, though — I’m not going to call him. Not because he wasn’t a charming fellow, but because I have no need for his services.
My friend and I discussed what happened on the ride back to his office. He told me that he advises his networking partners to never offer a business card unless it’s solicited. Why? Because it becomes, in his words, “a toothpick.” Since a card offered without solicitation is meaningless for the recipient, the card becomes yet another square of note card or the handy tool we use to remove food from our teeth while eating on the run.
His comments prompted some reflection. We all have our scripts for managing new connections in defined settings like business mixers. What about spur-of-the-moment experiences like that connection at the smoke shop? How can we grow those serendipituous connections into a solid referral partner?
A few tips come to mind:
- Don’t try to make a sale or force the conversation toward business. If the meeting is a one-time event, there’s no real value to pushing yourself on someone else (just like you won’t appreciate someone else pushing himself on you). If you can reasonably expect to see the other person again, then there’s time to talk business after you’ve built a social acquaintanceship. Plus, your likability factor will be higher, leading to a stronger level of connection and a higher probability of sale conversion.
- Listen to the conversation before bringing up business. If you think you offer products or services that could help your new prospect, mention them indirectly and don’t force the issue. Gear your approach toward the message that the other person is sending. For example, if you’re a Web designer and you’re talking to a person who’s sharing the pitfalls of building a website for his own bricks-and-mortar retail store, don’t enter full-on consultant mode. Instead, ask probing questions and offer advice. If the question of your expertise pops up, then share your skills, but let your queries and not your assertions speak to your expertise. Otherwise, don’t dilute the social power of the discussion with a marketing move until the time is ripe.
- Don’t share your marketing materials unless they’re solicited. People who share business cards with every handshake diminish the value of their own brand and send the message that they care more about your wallet than your special needs as a potential partner.
- Follow up promptly. Once you do connect on a business level, be extra particular about following up reliably. Since your meeting was social, negligence on your part will circulate in the same social circle, which may have repercussions beyond the initial failure to launch.
- Play the long game. New acquaintances are more likely to turn into referral partners when there’s basic familiarity and trust. That means waiting for the right moment to break the business ice — even if takes a month or more. The best way to turn someone off is to strong-arm self-promotion too quickly in the moment. Be patient, young grasshopper. Like a fine cigar or Scotch, sometimes you have to wait a while to let the final product rise to the highest quality.
- Be social. Maybe it need not be said, but sometimes it does — unless you actually introduce yourself, you won’t reap the benefits of the introduction.