Secrets of Master Networkers

If Sergio A. Fernández de Córdova, cofounder of Fuel Outdoor, invites you out for coffee, it’s not because he likes a jolt of caffeine. It means he acknowledges you as a potentially key business contact and knows that coffee (rather than lunch or drinks) is a cost- and time-effective way to connect.

As an NYC networker, Córdova is a natural. Others have to learn the skill. While the old phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is as potent as ever, a surprising number of business owners and executives find it hard to meet and cultivate new contacts.

Try these ideas from Córdova and some of New York’s master business networkers to help make that next connection.

Pre-event Prep

Entering a room of strangers can make anyone uneasy. To avoid this and help you plan specific goals for the event, do a little advance digging, advises Nancy Schess, cofounder of Gotham City Networking.

“Find out something about the speaker and the organization. Pick the brain of whoever invited you. Ask for the guest list,” Schess says.

Alternatively, you might target a person or company you’d like to meet and then arrange to get invited to an event where the company will have a presence. Do this by following the targeted company or person on various social networks like Twitter or LinkedIn to get an idea of what they’re doing and where they’re likely to be, advises Ellen DePasquale, founder of Efficient Office Computing.

Conversation Starters

When he first enters a networking room, Córdova scopes out the scene and decides his course of action. If he doesn’t see someone he knows, he’ll approach a person who’s standing alone or head for the event organizers. “They will know who’s in attendance and may be able to point you in the direction of someone who would be good to connect with,” he says.

Córdova says networking is more successful when it’s approached with a spirit of generosity. “By going up to someone with an open perspective and wanting to help, you make a better first impression, which is the key to being a successful networker,” he says.

Start the conversation with the logical questions, like “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” says Córdova. Find out what a person’s interests are. Ask how you might be able to assist: “So, how can I help you grow?” or “What do you hope is next for you?” Above all, don’t be “sales-y,” he advises. “The easiest way to turn me off is to try to

sell me when we first meet,” he says. “Be human and be genuine and you’ll get so much further.”

Conversation Closers

In networking, conversation closers are as important as openers. A misplaced sense of politeness too often keeps us rooted in place when we should be moving on.

That’s a mistake, says Schess: “Everybody works with his or her own style, but you have to say to yourself: ‘I need to move on and figure out in each conversation where I can leave without offending this person.’

You might say, for example, ‘It has been so great to meet you. I look forward to having more conversations with you, but if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to…’”

There’s also nothing wrong with saying, more vaguely, “Here’s my card, and I have yours. I hope we’ll cross paths again, but if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to…”

The Follow-Up

To help him remember a new contact, Cordova subtly holds the card in front of the person’s face and glances back- and-forth to reinforce a visual memory.

Before moving on to the next person, he jots notes on the back of the card so he can follow up specifically and appropriately. “Try to associate the person with a specific character trait and the name, so something will signal in your mind later when you meet with him again or email,” Córdova says.

Schess always follows up with her contact via email or with a phone call the next day and, if possible, continues the discussion. “We talk about the conversation we had, or I pass on something that I think they would like, such as an article or book I read,” she says.

To further cultivate a new relationship, DePasquale suggests you stay in touch through various online networks so you’re updated with what’s new in their lives and their companies. “Reading something posted at any of the social media sites can prompt a phone call or email that can continue the conversation,” she says. “People tend to be more forthcoming at social media sites, for better or for worse, and this information can be a great way to build the relationship.”