If you’ve ever worked in sales, you may be familiar with the adage, “Aim to serve, not to sell.” The expression also applies to professional networking, which should be approached as an exercise in generosity rather than personal gain.
Like any good relationship, a professional relationship has to be nurtured and cared for, and it should be mutual. The goal of networking is not to sell yourself and your skills, but to serve the relationship you share with a colleague in a way that’s both balanced and authentic.
We’re all discovering that maintaining relationships during this pandemic takes a different tack. When it comes to networking, it’s perhaps more important than ever to approach your contacts with an extra dose of professionalism and empathy. But you’ll also need to employ some new strategies. Here are four things to keep in mind as you network in these unprecedented times.
1. Be specific
When reaching out to a contact for information — whether via phone, email or LinkedIn — be specific about what you’re asking for. Keep in mind that we’re all struggling a bit right now and while it’s fine to ask for help, don’t do it in a way that burdens your contact with trying to figure out what you need. Do your legwork in advance so you can ask a pointed question or two. For example, if you find a position of interest at a contact’s organization, don’t blanket them with questions. Instead, consider a brief note indicating which position you’re interested in and asking a specific question or two about their experience at the company.
2. Be genuine
Getting back to authentic relationships, don’t launch into a communication with your professional connection with an ask. Take a moment to acknowledge that we’re all living in unique circumstances right now. Begin your communication with a genuine interest in how things are going for them. Find your empathy before you type or pick up the phone, and don’t be surprised if your contact responds in kind. We all need extra compassion right now.
3. Be patient
Before COVID, I would recommend my clients follow up on a professional inquiry after several days if they had not received a reply. Now I recommend waiting a week or two before emailing with a first follow-up. Keep in mind that your contact may now be juggling a child’s online education, new professional responsibilities or even a personal or family illness. Again, approach your contact with empathy by asking how they’re doing before you mention that you’re following up on a previous conversation or email.
4. Be creative
Consider creative ways of connecting with others. For example, host your own virtual networking event. Think about inviting three to five people in your network with similar professional interests or backgrounds. Ask everyone to bring a favorite beverage or snack and have a few prompt questions ready to get the conversation rolling. You can keep it social or move into the professional realm by asking people to talk about their job or a favorite project.
Networking is about building authentic, balanced professional relationships. Nurturing your network with empathy and care during this pandemic can help strengthen these relationships and create a stronger professional community.
Sybil Pressprich is the career services director at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on June 14, 2020.