In 2005, a survey conducted by Small Business Trends revealed that small businesses acquire 85% of their customers through referrals. That survey took place 12 years ago but I can guarantee you that businesses still expand heavily by word of mouth, regardless of the platform. Any number of ads would not have the same impact as a personal recommendation. Businesses know this fact and the successful ones aim at offering more than just a product, but a unique experience to their customers. You may not own a business and you may not be selling a product; nonetheless, to sell yourself in the professional world, you must make an unforgettable impression and offer a beneficial product (yourself).

The more people know you and the more people you know, the more your professional reach is expanded. However, when I first started networking, I had a wrong conception of networking as I found out many people also do. Let me explain. I had discovered meetup.com and immediately ordered hundreds of business cards. I would go to networking events with dozens of cards and five minutes into a conversation I would ask for a business card and offer mine in return. A day or two later, I would send tons of connection requests on LinkedIn. Once I was connected on social media or through email with my new connections, I would immediately offer them my service or products. How foolish and unprofessional was I! I had failed at applying this principle I had learned from Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People: ‘You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can make in two years by trying to get other people interested in you’. Did I find out what the other people wanted? No. Did I find out what their interests were? No. Did I care to know why they were networking? Not even. I wasn’t getting much result from my networking although I was racking up new connections.

I’ve changed my mindset about networking and I have highly benefited from a different approach. Truly, professional networking is nothing less than arousing in the other person a sincere want to help you. You do so by honestly and sincerely finding out what the other person wants and by helping them to get there if you can. The next time you make a new connection, here are four questions you must ask to be effective and open any door for yourself.

What’s trending in your line of work / industry?

In every industry, there are trends (for example, an accountant may be interested in different types of leads based on the season of the year). To grow, companies conform and direct their marketing to these trends. When I’m making a new connection, this question helps me avoid any assumption. If I am to work with or help someone, asking about the trend in their industry ensures that my service, product or recommendation is relevant and that it brings value. Plus, as I’m meeting other professionals in that industry, my knowledge of their current trends automatically raises my credibility because I can have industry focused conversations.

What are you currently trying to accomplish?

Would you get on a train or a bus without knowing its destination or its route? Common sense says no. When I was a French language tutor, I could not help any student without having a clear understanding of what they were trying to accomplish. The same applies to networking. You will not be able to help everyone. Finding out what the other party is looking to do is crucial in knowing whether you can or want to be of service. This question will save you time, effort and maybe even money. For the other party, this question is a sign of your care. While everybody else is approaching them to sell a service, your interest in their goal will set you apart.

Why are you trying to reach this goal?

My experience in sales has taught me this lesson: you will always earn more business if you cater to the ‘why’ of your clients. Whether you’re dealing with a company or an individual, there is always a ‘why’ which drives their actions. However, I want to point out here that when networking, your goal is not to dig so deep into a ten minutes conversation to find out why someone has dedicated 20 years of their lives to a career. As you build trust, you may eventually come to that point. Initially, find out what accomplishing a certain goal would bring to that person. Discovering this why and encouraging it creates a level of emotional connection.

Asking the ‘why’ question doesn’t imply that you must commit to it. You may not be able to. Nonetheless, your action shows that you are not selfish. Trust me, you will make an unforgettable impression.

How might I help you?

You now know what your new connection is trying to accomplish and why. The icing on the cake is to ask, ‘how might I help you?’. This last question combined with sincerity embodies your commitment to this new relation. It is not a commitment to help but a commitment to do your part if your resources allow. Don’t inquire about how you might help if you’re not willing to help. Take their response and find ways to lend a hand. A referral, a book recommendation, an article that brings a solution to their problem or a tool that maximizes their productivity goes a long way. Ask the ‘how might I help’ question, follow up and deliver and you will make lifelong loyal networking partners.

Practice these four questions the next time you’re connecting. Mold it to your personality but be honest and sincere. You will find that the part where you get new clients, new referrals and/or new job opportunities will come naturally. In fact, you will build a network so big and so effective that you will always have the right connections and resources.

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