10 Steps to Crush Your Next Networking Coffee

Many years ago, when I was but a young entrepreneur, I joined a local Chamber of Commerce Leads Group.  After my first few meetings and getting to know the other members, a gentleman asked me if I’d like to go to coffee so he could learn more about what I did.

“This is it!”, thought my naïve, innocent self.  “He’s going to hire me for his marketing.  Damn, this networking thing is paying off already!”

Um, not so much.  I eagerly showed up at the coffee date, portfolio in hand.  We talked.  And talked.  He asked lots of questions about me, and I learned a lot about what he did. We laughed. But, disappointingly, he never quite got around to asking me to work for him.  WTF?  Suffice to say, I learned a big lesson that day.  That networking is about connecting with other professionals and growing a…wait for it…network.  It’s not a sales call. If it were, we’d call it a sales call.  It’s not an interview, if it were….well, you get the picture.  So, when my leads group friend asked me out for a cup of coffee, and that cup of coffee ended up being just a cup of coffee and not a job offer?  Well, that’s the day I learned what I’m calling “Lesson Number One”.

“Lesson Number Two” came more recently.  My blog post “I hate Networking…or Do I?” describes my own personal challenge to connect with 25 local business women and overcome my aversion to networking.  It worked, and after a month of the challenge, I far exceeded my goal of growing my tribe by 25 women.  Yay, me! But, I digress…

The challenge also had its disappointments.  This is a pretty typical email exchange with a potential BBFF (Best Business Friend Forever):

Me:   So-and-so suggested I reach out to you. I am a business coach who works with women entrepreneurs and business owners and I’m looking to grow my professional network here locally.  I would love to hear how you started your business and the challenges you face as an independent business woman. Do you have time for coffee?

Potential BBFF: Thank you for reaching out. I think it’s great you’re a business coach and that you help other women with their businesses. I am already part of a support group who have been pretty great to me. At this time, I’m happy with where I’m at with business support but thank you for thinking of me.

Let me summarize.  Lesson Number One was that networking is NOT about selling your services.  Networking is about learning the other person’s story and discovering more details about their business. It’s about creating connections and building relationships.  Lesson Number Two?  Not everyone has learned Lesson Number One.

And, now, for “Lesson Number Three.”  There is an art to networking.  Yes, it’s about that cup of coffee and a chat and learning more about the person sitting across from you, but there are some specific things you can do to maximize your networking and turbo-charge that relationship building.  I’ve spent a lot of time recently attending networking events, arranging one-on-one coffees, asking others about their experiences, and becoming largely obsessed with meeting and connecting with people.  LOTS of people.  I have to tell you, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready to share.

So (drumroll, please) here’s 10 things you can do to crush your next networking coffee:

  1. Be clear about your expectations. If you’re the one setting the date, be specific about what you’re looking for.  Are you looking for referrals?  Do you want an entrepreneur’s advice on starting your own business? Whatever your reason for wanting to connect, let your contact know what you’re hoping for.
  2. It doesn’t have to be coffee. I once met a contact for ice cream and short walk around the block.  The point is that you are setting aside dedicated, uninterrupted time to make your connection.  One caveat – avoid alcohol until you get to know someone better.  While it can lubricate the social stress of networking, it can also lower our inhibitions enough that we don’t present our best selves.
  3. Do your homework. There are plenty of ways these days to learn about your coffee-mate before you meet face-to-face.  Do a little research by visiting their LinkedIn profile, Twitter feed, Facebook page(s), and any other social media channels to get an idea about their business and their brand.  Flatter your contact by showing genuine interest in something you’ve read about them.  Because we all know, flattery will get you everywhere!
  4. Take a business card. Do I have to remind you?  Yes, because I’ve been to plenty of events and one-on-ones where someone showed up without a business card.  Even if you are 110% sure that person already has your card in their possession, be prepared to hand them a new one.  And always, always, ask for one of theirs because you’ll need it to follow up.
  5. Don’t go in with the goal of “selling” yourself. I have so completely bought into the philosophy that networking is not about selling myself, that I go into every networking coffee planning not to talk about myself at all. Maybe that sounds a little extreme, but going in with a whole-hearted focus on the other person means that I am completely engaged in their story.  When I do talk about myself, it’s a natural response to what’s going on in the conversation or to a question, it’s not me flogging my products and services.  Which feels authentic and natural to me, and to the person I’m with.
  6. Arrive with an attitude of giving. Just like I consciously plan not to speak about myself, I also make a concerted effort to identify opportunities to help my contact. Whether it’s an article that relates to our discussion, or a group event I think he or she might be interested in, or a third-party vendor or resource I think they could benefit from knowing, I am constantly looking for chances not only to do something nice, but to continue our conversation past this single coffee date.
  7. Ask questions. Lots of questions!  Asking the right questions can keep the conversation flowing, help you uncover common interests, and build a deeper connection – which are all the reasons why you set up your coffee date in the first place! Plus, asking questions shows that you are engaged and interested in their story.  Showing genuine interest in your contact makes them feel valued and important.  And, when you make someone feel valued and important, they like you.  When someone likes you, they want to help you.  See where this is going?    Ask a lot of questions.
  8. Close with the question “What can I do to support you?” and be prepared when they ask you the same. Be definite and keep it simple.  When someone asks me how they can help, I usually respond with “I would love it if you could introduce me to any women entrepreneurs or business owners that you know.”  NOTE: this is a great time to ask them if you can add them to your list to stay in touch (because I know you’re not adding people to your list without their explicit written or verbal permission, right?).  Reciprocate by asking them if they have a list so you can stay up to date with what they’re doing.
  9. Offer to pay. Especially if you’ve made the initial contact or invitation. Be gracious if they decline.  It’s just courtesy, plus, you can write it off as a business expense.
  10. Follow up. Immediately, or at least by end of business the same day.  If you’ve promised a resource (book title, link to an article, etc.) send it right away with a thank you note for making time for you.  If you’ve offered to connect them with a third party, confirm that you’ll follow up with a three-way email introduction.  In today’s connected world, it’s also nice to make an online connection via LinkedIn after spending time with someone.

To recap.  Networking is about connecting; it’s not about selling.  Be specific about what your goals are, with yourself and with your connections.  Be professional and prepared.  Look for ways to take your new relationship beyond the first coffee.  I wish someone had told me not only what to expect from networking, but how to DO IT.  That’s why I’m all too happy to share these tips with you.

Now, go forth and connect!