How to Build and Maintain Professional Relationships
Do you wait to connect again because you’re not sure what to say?
When you’re thinking about following-up with professional contacts do you ever procrastinate because you’re not quite sure what to say? Maybe, as we discussed in a previous episode, you just hate networking (please refer to that episode for tips on making networking easier). In today’s episode I’ll cover quick and dirty tips for developing, deepening, and rekindling connections in your professional network.
Getting Back in Touch with Clients and Colleagues
I recently received this email from a Korean listener who preferred to remain anonymous:
I was wondering if you could talk about how to get back in touch with people you have worked with in the past. What do you say in an email to them? I have some clients that I worked with about a year ago that I wanted to stay in touch with, but I've procrastinated on it because I never knew what to say. I feel like I'm socially awkward via email and in person, so I ended up never emailing them. Is it too late to contact them now?
First, no it’s not too late. It’s never too late to connect with clients and colleagues. I think most of us are so busy that when others reach out to us, we are happy for the contact--no matter how much time has passed. By the way, you should know you’re not alone. At just about every networking seminar that I deliver someone wants to know exactly how to keep in touch with someone after the initial contact. Like you, many admit that they procrastinated and then eventually gave up mostly because they were unsure how to move the conversation forward and too much time had passed.
Conversations Lead to the Creation of Your Professional Network
I like to image a professional network like a funnel with a very wide opening at the top, which gradually narrows down into a small opening at the bottom. Every day I have dozens of interactions and conversations, both in person and electronic, all of which pour into the top of funnel. Some spill out, whereas others begin the journey into the narrow neck of the funnel.
With more contact, I discover and develop connections. The process is iterative--the more conversations, the more commonalities I discover, and the closer the connection. In my mind, the stronger the connection, the further down into the neck of the funnel. Although, as time passes, some of your connections might become weaker or even disappear. It's normal for people’s priorities and interests to ebb and flow. However, if you’re fortunate, you’ll develop strong, deep trusting relationships with a select few. These I imagine as the few drops that come out of the end of the funnel.
It’s important to patiently, persistently, and professionally communicate with your contacts so that you can transform them into connections and then relationships.
Networking is an Ongoing Process
So, for me, networking is an ongoing process of communication with the goal of developing closer, solid, quality relationships.
I think lots of us get stuck near the top of the funnel, investing time and effort adding more and more contacts into the top. However, it’s equally important to patiently, persistently, and professionally communicate with your contacts so that you can transform them into connections and then relationships. So here are some practical, actionable tips to build closer relationships.
Build Closer Relationships By Staying in Touch
First, don’t pester people, but do check in. I definitely favor very brief personal communication over longer impersonal bulk updates. For my clients, it is very common for me to send an email or leave a phone message that says, “Just checking in. How’s it going?” or “We haven’t talked in a while. Just wondering how you’re doing?”
Really it’s that simple. I almost always get a reply, sometimes right away, and sometimes not for several weeks. Sometimes clients even respond by asking for information, or asking if I’m available on a certain date. (Usually though, they just give me a quick update–sometimes personal, sometimes professional.)
The problem for me is to remember to do the task. So I set up a separate Google calendar that just keeps track of my networking activities. I set task reminders to check in either once a quarter, or once every six months depending on the relationship. The idea is to ensure I have contact at least once every three to six months. By the way, I don’t do this for all my contacts, only selected contacts.
Stay in Touch By Celebrating Achievements
Another easy way to stay in contact is to celebrate achievements-- theirs or yours! Let’s say I notice that someone got a research grant, or they got a new job, or I hear they finally sold their house. I’ll send a quick, “Congratulations, way to go!” message.
Occasionally, if something good happens to me, I might send an email that says, “Just a quick update. I’m excited because I just got an article published. Any good news on your end?” In a way it gives my connections permission to brag a bit. And I enjoy reading the responses because it allows me to get know what is important to that particular person.
For someone I haven’t contacted in a long time, say an old co-worker that I lost track of, I just say, “Hey, just wondering what you’ve been up to since I last talked with you. I’d love to hear from you when you have time.”
How to Stay in Touch with New Contacts
If it’s a new contact, it takes a bit more effort. With new contacts you have two goals: to explore for more common ground and to offer your help. When I have time, I try to review online profiles to see if there is anything we have in common: maybe a common contact, maybe a common school, or common interest. I try to find something to ask a question about. The topic isn’t nearly as important as advancing the conversation. The easiest thing to do is to ask a question or two that the person can respond to. I always hope the person will respond with answers and a few more questions for me, to keep the conversation moving forward.
Network By Offering Your Help
As I mentioned, it’s also important to offer your help. I’ve discussed this in previous episodes, but I can’t emphasize it enough. Networking, especially at the beginning, is about giving to others. Every person has professional currency to offer. For example, I might offer to help connect people in my network, I might review a book or a blog, I might offer encouragement, I might offer some advice or make a recommendation or referral, or I might even offer to speak at an event. We all have talents, and a sincere offer of your assistance can go a long way towards building a relationship.
I really like it when I get an email with a link to something that I might find interesting or useful. However, I definitely prefer when the person very briefly explains why I might find the link useful or why it might be interesting. I receive so much; it’s hard to know which to look at, and I appreciate a rough categorization of what was sent so I can decide if I want to look at it.
Schedule a Live Conversation
I’ve found the fastest way to advance an initial contact is a live conversation. I prefer to simply talk and joke with someone in person-- I believe it allows me to get to know them more naturally. Because very few of my contacts are local, my preferred method of meeting is video chat. Actually, even for local people, I still prefer to meet first via video chat the first few times, because well, I prefer not to travel if it’s not absolutely necessary. But of course, meeting for meals or coffee, or participating in activities you both enjoy is a great way to build and extend relationships.
So there you have it some quick and dirty tips for rekindling, deepening, and developing, connections in your professional network.
This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.
Networking image from Shutterstock