In networking, the right time is now
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Follow up after a first meeting: You've attended the event. You've asked for and received a few business cards. Now you just have to follow up. Put them on the list to call in the future and you are ready to go, right?
The thing is, putting them on "the list" may be no more effective than putting their card in the pile on your desk. You need to commit to follow up and to follow up promptly. Too long a gap between your initial five-minute conversation and the telephone call to set up a coffee and they will have forgotten who you are. You will essentially be making a cold call. One solution to this would be to make the appointment while you are still at the event. Barring that, you need a system which prompts you to be in touch within the next week at the latest.
Follow up after a coffee. Everyone enjoys a quick thank-you note or e-mail acknowledging they spent some valuable time with you. Even more important, if you promised information or a contact to the person you met, be sure to provide it as soon as you can -- definitely within the week.
I know I've been guilty of not consulting my notes in a timely fashion and neglecting to send some desired information. I know I've mentioned before that I'm not perfect, right? Now, there's a good chance my connections didn't even remember I had said I was going to do anything. It's unlikely they'll hold it against me. The downside here is that I'm missing out on a chance to make myself indispensable and someone whom they keep at the top of their mind.
Follow up on a referral. OK, this one might seem amazingly obvious, but believe it or not, there are people out there who don't respond to a referral immediately. They let it sit in their e-mail inbox or in a pile of papers on their desk. When and if they eventually follow up on the opportunity, they discover the chance has gone cold. Then they can only complain they never had a chance.
And guess how likely it is that the same person is going to pass them any more referrals.
In a similar vein, follow up with the person who passed the referral. Let them know if it was a good one. If it turns out to be a great opportunity for you, the follow-up should include some aspect of thanks -- maybe lunch on you?
What it all comes down to is consistent, timely communication. Like a good joke, you have to have your timing just right. Mess that up and no one will be having any fun.