Networking expertise paying big dividends
Research, preparation help entrepreneur connect with audience
By Mike Dempster - Business Edge
Published: 06/09/2005 - Vol. 5, No. 23
When Donna Messer works a room, she often amazes people with her insight - facts she knows about their business, associations to which they belong and even charities they support.
A professional speaker and networking expert, Messer says research, preparation and a disciplined system have helped her develop a current networking database of more than 25,000 people.
"Before I speak at an event, I'll ask for a list of attendees," says Messer, president of Oakville, Ont.-based ConnectUs Communications Canada.
"I go to their websites. If they file annual reports, I read them. If they have a charity of choice, I check it out."
The idea is to have as much information as possible about people she networks with at events. Once they meet, she can readily offer information or a contact that will help improve the person's professional or personal life.
"Networking in the beginning stages is about making introductions," Messer says. "You're in the middle. You are the link. You are not necessarily getting the business."
It's a philosophy she'll employ this week in Calgary when she speaks to two groups and where she expects to collect 200 business cards. Along with the cards she'll receive permission to help connect those people to others in her network, a link she expects to benefit all parties.
It's the same principle Messer uses when she coaches bankers, accountants and lawyers from Canada's major institutions; university and college kids trying to break into the workplace; or older workers looking to create new careers.
Not everybody knows how to network. But it has become critical for success for such professionals as bankers and financial planners.
"At one time business just came to them (the banks)," Messer says. "Now they have to go to business. So they have to become hunters rather than just gatherers."
She explains that when a financial services professional attends a chamber of commerce meeting, he or she shouldn't just show up and hand out their business cards.
Instead, as she does, her client first must determine who is attending the meeting. If, for example, the financial professional sees that a window builder will attend, it's up to him to check his own network for a contact that might help the builder.
The banker shouldn't push the builder on a financial service, Messer says, but rather offer something useful and non-threatening such as a good business contact.
"The hunter has ensnared the target without hurting them," she says. "The target feels comfortable because they didn't have to buy anything from the bank. But they now feel a bit of an obligation, because that person gave him something for nothing."
Messer's strategies have evolved from her career as an entrepreneur. A professional speaker for more than 20 years, she calls herself "The Original Spice Girl," having developed a dry mix of spices that go into the sour cream dip for potato chips.
She's the former managing editor of BusinessWoman Canada magazine, a position that allowed her to speak to women's groups across the world, and is the author of the best-selling book Effective Networking Strategies.
She established ConnectUs Communications as a small sideline business in the early 1990s when employed as the director of agriculture for the state of Illinois. The only Canadian ever to hold the position, her responsibility was to build relationships and profits that benefited both Canada and the U.S.
"They hired me because my database of contacts was so large. They said it would have taken five years to build what I already had."
Today, ConnectUs Communications is her principal business, matching organizations and people to develop and grow their operations. Among many services, she teaches her clients the art of networking.
"I think what separates me from some of the others is that I really do stress the point of making the other guy more important than you," Messer says. "Always lead with, 'How can I help you?' - and then listen.
"(Help) often won't come from your particular expertise, but if you have a good database, and say 'I know someone you should talk to,' that's so much more powerful."
While every person has a unique style, Messer stresses a few points: First, build rapport with the other person by finding some common interest; exchange information that's valuable to both sides; and (what she calls the key element) never give out a name, a contact or a resource without first obtaining permission.
While she's actively networked most of her business life, Messer says it's a learned skill requiring hard work and discipline. Using two strengths to her advantage - the ability to research quickly and effectively, and a highly trained memory - she impresses many people.
As an example, Messer currently works with IT workers struggling in a saturated marketplace. When she speaks to a large group, she can't necessarily research the background for each individual, but she does come armed with information.
"What I have for them is Statistics Canada reports, how much money they're making, what the contracts are like, who's buying, who's selling," she says. "They're thrilled when I do this."
It's the kind of preparation that helps her work a room and provide something valuable to almost everyone there.
And it's much better than simply exchanging business cards.
Some of the networking practices used by Donna Messer, president of ConnectUs Communications Canada:
||Carry plenty of business cards. A jacket with two pockets is crucial; the right one for business cards, the left for those you collect. No fumbling. No giving out someone else’s card by mistake.
||Check out the buffet first — not because you’re hungry. “People tend to be very accessible around the food. Talking and eating go together. It’s a great way to get started at an event,” she says. Messer carries her coffee in her left hand so she can shake with her right.
||Quickly scan nametags while looking around. “Don’t read nametags while talking to people, always maintain eye contact. Sideways glances make you look unapproachable.”
||In a crowded room, look for people on their own. An individual contact is one-on-one and makes the most effective networking. Smile as you approach. Be careful if you approach two people, she warns, they may be in conversation, not just chatting, and they won’t welcome a third party.
||Ask for a business card before offering your own. “It’s less presumptuous.” Make note of any followup possibilities on the back of the card.
||After spotting someone you’d really like to know, try to enlist a colleague who knows the person to make the introduction. “A third party intro is like an endorsement,” says Messer, “and the next time we meet, that will be remembered.”
(Mike Dempster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)