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9 Tips to Turn Networking Contacts Into Meaningful Relationships, From a Serial Connector

This post was originally published by The Muse, and was written by Susan McPherson.

Two women talking in a coffee shop. The one facing the camera is smiling and wearing black frame glasses, a pink blouse and black slacks, holding a to-go coffee up, and standing. The second is seated with her back to the camera, is wearing a black with white polka-dot blouse, gray slacks, and holding a clipboard and to-go coffee cup.
Photo by Rodnae Productions on Pexels

The goal in any meaningful relationship is to give it depth. That’s what my book, The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships, is all about. Of course, not every networking contact has to become a deep relationship: We have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources. But when there’s potential to help each other in business and in life, it’s worthwhile to take the relationship deeper. And what people so often ask me is: How? How do you transform a relationship from the superficial to the meaningful without feeling awkward or stiff?

Here are a few practical tips:

1. Take Action Right After You Meet

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make: They fail to follow up quickly and effectively. Don’t stop the train midtrack! Taking follow-up action is not only essential for deepening that initial connection, but also for turning a job or idea into reality. Take immediate steps post-meeting. Connect with and follow up on their preferred social platforms or set a reminder on your phone to take action in another way. Don’t wait for the other person to take the lead.

2. Reach Out, Even If the Gain Isn’t Immediately Obvious

Let’s say, for example, that you meet someone at a dinner event who works in criminal justice reform. And let’s also say that you are a public relations consultant. It would be easy to think, “Well, that was an interesting person, but I don’t see how our lines of work can intersect.”

If you feel a connection or sense a shared passion or goal—even if it’s not clear how it relates to your current jobs—you want to act right away once the door to the relationship has been opened. What did you talk about? Is there a passion you share? Does this person have knowledge about a topic you would like to learn more about? Make that first follow-up a way to solidify the connection.

Here are a few examples of follow-up emails I like to send:

  • “It was wonderful to meet you. I’m fascinated by the work you’re doing in [field]. Please keep me posted on your work. I’d love to find ways to support you and your endeavors.”

  • “It was great to meet you last evening at the [event]! Let’s keep in touch.”

  • “So great to meet you! I’d love to get to know you better and see how I might be able to support your good work. Want to grab coffee in the next several weeks?”

  • “I saw this article on [topic] and thought of you—it was great to connect! Let’s keep in touch.”

3. Remember Everyone Wants to Feel Seen

During each meeting you have, jot down notes about what is important to this particular person. Do they mention a hobby or interest you share? Are they traveling to London this fall? Write these things down so that when you follow up, you can do so on a particular item that will prove how closely you were listening and paying attention. You can email them to say, “How was that trip to London? Did you happen to grab a lunch at Borough Market?” When you do this, the person will feel remembered and heard.

Celebrate them and their wins, too. Is someone celebrating a birthday? Reach out. Did they just change jobs and announce it on LinkedIn? Congratulate them. Did they or their company receive a media mention? Send them a note to let them know you saw it.

4. Do the Thing They Told You to Do

Telling someone you’ll do something (and then taking action) is one way to instill trust and help that person feel seen. Following someone else’s suggestion—and then circling back with them to let them know—is a great way to deepen your connection. And it usually takes only a few minutes of your time.

If a new connection suggests you order the hummus at the restaurant down the street from your apartment—try it. Then you have the perfect opportunity to reconnect with them over email. “Loved the hummus—great call!” Did the person mention that they were just on a podcast? Listen to the episode and send a brief note or better yet, promote the podcast on Instagram or Twitter. Not only will these actions provide context into their work and their personality, you’ll also have another reason to connect. You can write: “Fascinating podcast about impact direct-to-consumer marketing—I have some friends in this space I’d love to connect you to, if you’d like?”

Research shows that if you don’t follow the advice a colleague or a contact gives you, it can have negative consequences. So don’t ask for their advice or tips (no matter how trivial) if you don’t plan on taking it.

5. Let People Know You’re Thinking of Them

Following up not only means moving business forward, but it also means checking in on the people who are important your business and your life as a whole.

I have a daily practice of sending Tweets, LinkedIn likes, text messages, phone calls, and even snail mail to let people in my world know that I am thinking about them—that I am interested in staying connected on a deep, human level. I like to use my morning coffee time to share and like posts on social and skim the news for topics of interest or to discern where I can be of help. In what’s become a cherished morning routine (while throwing a toy with my pup), I participate in a mutual exchange of support that’s kept me and my business thriving. I encourage you to find your own daily or weekly practice of following up on the meaningful people in your life.

6. Go Beyond Small Talk

As you go through your daily routines of following up with the people in your life, make sure you’re intentionally carving out ways to talk about something that is personally meaningful—to have conversations that are not transactional or based on small talk or the business at hand. Essentially, you’re extending your practice of making another person feel seen. Of asking them, in many different ways, how you can help.

To that end, I’ve developed a set of questions to use as a jumping off point. And while there is some finesse to delivering these kinds of questions (you certainly don’t want to randomly fire them off in a list!), becoming familiar with them can help broaden your sense of how to share deeper conversations with others. You can even use a few in a job interview or at a networking event. Here are a few examples:

If you could invite anyone in the world as your dinner guest, who would it be?

Tell me the story of your whole career in three minutes.

If you could change anything about the way your career has evolved, what would it be and why?

If you could wake up tomorrow and acquire one new professional quality or ability, what would it be? What about personal qualities?

Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time but haven’t? Why haven’t you done it?

7. Find Their CDF (Chief Differentiating Factor)

I like to think that each person has what I call a chief differentiating factor, or CDF. I see it as each person’s specific expertise or “secret sauce” that makes them unique. For example, my very dear friend, Lisa Witter, cofounder and chair of Apolitical, is one of the most articulate human beings I’ve ever met. This specialty has enabled her to command the attention of large audiences, score meetings with global government leaders, and raise millions of dollars from investors who believe in her mission.

As you pay more attention to the depth and quality of your relationships, ask yourself: What’s this person’s chief differentiating factor? What’s this person’s unique asset or set of characteristics?

Once you learn what someone’s CDF is, it’s your job to remind them of it. If you reflect back on someone’s specialness in a way that they can clearly see it—especially during a challenging time or when that person might struggle to see the full scope of their own value—I promise you they will never forget it.

8. Express Gratitude

Think for a second about all of the different contacts you’ve made in your lifetime at virtual or in-person gatherings. You likely have a gigantic list full of professors, colleagues, friends, cofounders, neighbors, and even relatives. Include them all in your mental tally. Now pick the one, two, or three people who’ve made the biggest impact on your career. Have you told any of these individuals about the esteemed position they hold in your life? (If you’ve already told them—has it been a while since you did?) Now think about a new connection, someone that you met more recently. Have you told that person how grateful you are to know them?

You might even try writing a handwritten note to someone who did something for you in your career or in life. I always keep stamps nearby so that when I think about writing someone, I can do it. In the sea of mass emails we all get, a handwritten note will not go unnoticed. It will strengthen your ties and boost feelings of gratitude for you as well as the recipients.

9. Never Stop Being Curious

Curiosity is linked to psychological, physical, and emotional health. Research shows that it may also play a critical role in our social relationships. It makes sense that curious people may have an easier time bonding with a diverse range of people, simply because they are interested in learning about what people from different walks of life have to offer.

Can curiosity be learned? The research isn’t clear. But I would argue that simply walking into a meeting, event, or dinner with the mindset that your primary goal is to find out about others rather than to spew information about yourself—just that reframing of your intentions alone—can make a big difference.

With each relationship you develop, ask yourself: What is there to be learned? If you’re sitting across from someone vying for a new job, even if they ultimately say no, ask yourself: What other new knowledge could I walk away with? What viewpoint had I been missing?

The same goes for keeping in touch: Whether it’s your first tea with someone or your 500th, tuning in to them will not only make that person feel special, but it will also deepen the relationship and foster authentic and long-lasting connections.

Excerpt from The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships by Susan McPherson (McGraw Hill, March 2021).

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