I appreciate all of the questions I’ve gotten about my posts on Networking 101 and Networking with Alumni, most of which concerned what to do after making the basic connection at events or through the alumni network.
It’s important to keep in mind that your primary goal in networking is building a relationship that will last in the longer term. Sooner or later, we will all want to hit up our networks in the hunt for clients, employees, job opportunities, or information, but that’s only effective if the people who see those requests have some idea of who we are and some respect for our personal/professional competence. As such, your first task after you make a connection is making sure the person gets to know you (and vice versa). No matter how you make first contact, your goal is to set up a conversation where the person you’re meeting can get to know you.
If you met through a brief connection (email intro; LinkedIn outreach; networking event [<5 minute convo])
Meeting someone very briefly, whether through a cold email/intro, a reach out on LinkedIn, and/or a networking event (where the 1-on-1 conversation was shorter than 5 minutes) is a very unstable beginning and has to be handled carefully. The trick to navigating this well is keeping in mind why you want a relationship with this person. Is this someone you like and respect whom you want as part of your network [if so, why]? Do you want a long-term relationship with this person? Are you looking for something in the next few months from this person (e.g., job, client)?
No matter your reasons, your next step is a conversation, and the colder the connection, the shorter the conversation.
If you reached out randomly to someone on LinkedIn, or got a cold intro through a contact, it is incumbent upon you to explain why you want the connection, and what you want to talk about with them. Whatever your intentions, be upfront about them, because otherwise you (and those you represent) are going to get blackballed.
For example, I recently had someone reach out to me on LinkedIn for the purposes of getting an “in” for the hiring process of one of the companies I’m advising. The person’s note started by mentioning our similarities and quickly moved to asking me if I could advise on the hiring process. When I said that I couldn’t, but showed an interest in building a connection, the person basically just admitted to wanting to build a Rolodex of people “like me” and didn’t want to answer any questions about the reasons for connecting. The person then removed the connection with me on LinkedIn, but that exchange means I will be conferring with the company that I advise about that person’s application (and not in a positive way). I can tell several similar stories about people who jumped right into a sales pitch (they got blocked).
Another reason for being upfront about your intentions, is that the person can actually help build the connection if the reasons why are compelling.
For instance, as an active alum for my alma mater, I attend a bunch of events where students just connect to me on LinkedIn and never get in touch. I hate to tell them this, but they’re wasting their time and mine, because any desire to reach out to me a year later to help with anything they are doing is going to get a very polite version of “who the heck are you?” As much as I’m happy to connect, advise, and work with alumni, I still need to know who they are and what they want. I’ve had a few who mentioned wanting to “pick my brain in the future,” and while I’m happy to do that, their reaching out on LinkedIn about a year before doesn’t actually serve at all. Instead, the best bet is to schedule a call so there can be a deeper conversation, or at least to answer me when I ask how and why I can be a helpful connection. In that case, I’m actually interested in helping fellow alumni, so I can lead the conversation to find out what the person wants/needs.
With the reasons squared away, the best bet is to ask for a short chat.
If you had a cold intro and you clearly want something, keep the conversation to 15 minutes. Your goal for that conversation is to get to know the person and figure out how you can provide something of value for them (not the other way around, as one might assume ab initio). Remember that the best salespeople see themselves as helping and serving their customers by making sure that they get what they need! If you’re looking for a job, you can frame this as finding out what the person[‘s company] needs and learn about whether you’re the right person to fill it. If you show genuine reasons for connecting, and an understanding of what the person needs, you will be in a position to ask for a second conversation that can go longer (if the first conversation didn’t spill over and/or automatically yield a follow up because you ran out of time).
If you had a cold intro and you are looking to build a long-term relationship, that’s something you make clear and you ask for a coffee/drinks* chat (if you’re local, and it’s usually better if you are) or a phone chat that’s a bit longer and probably happens after work hours. For something like this, you need to show from the early e-chats that there is mutual benefit to be gained and that you are similar enough that you have cause to pursue a long-term relationship. Hopefully, this happened in the first contact, but if not you are going to need to make that clear in very short order.
If you met through a warm connection (e.g., recommendation) or met at an event (convo 5+ minutes)
For this kind of connection, the reasons why you are in touch are already obvious if you follow up within a week or so. Your goal here is to reinforce the initial [weak] bond that you made, and thus your best bet is to follow up for coffee/drinks* if you’re local and a 30-/60-minute phone chat if you’re far away. In any case, your first communication after the contact should include a recap of the conversation and why you appreciate having the connection. Your goal for the actual conversation should be to develop the relationship and not necessarily to get into asks without an explicit invitation. That said, a great way to promote the connection is to look for ways to be helpful to the other person, and even asking it about it outright if it isn’t clear.
Follow up, follow up, follow up
In all cases, once you’ve gotten to a conversation, follow up some more. Keep in touch with the person, even if it’s just an email every six months to say how you are doing and to ask the other person for the latest news. By maintaining this connection over time, both of you are more likely to get results when there’s an ask on the table. Moreover, you will both have opportunities for growth, development, and meaningful relationships. Make the most of it!
* I recommend being careful about how you frame the invitation if you’re recommending meeting “for drinks,” as some people can misinterpret the invitation. Hence, I usually recommend “coffee/drinks” and/or making very clear in the invitation your reasons for the meeting (and be aware that deviating from that agenda can get you blackballed if it goes south).