By Shaun Thomson, CEO of Sandler Training UK

For many, the concept of networking brings to mind images of stilted conversations, contrived discussions and quite simply, a “tick the box” ordeal we schedule in our calendars once or twice a year — reluctantly. What’s more, in the age of LinkedIn and Google +, we have developed a tendency to hide behind our online profiles in connecting with customers, colleagues and even friends. However, the art of face to face conversation remains key to cementing relationships; it’s time to bring back the vintage way of networking.

Networking is a creative, added value activity that, when done intelligently, can increase both personal and company performance, enhance your organisation’s reputation and build a higher level of relationships and more qualified referrals. So, how can entrepreneurs and decision makers tap into the power of effective networking?

As CEO of a management and leadership development organisation, I work with inspirational business leaders every day, and yet when it comes to networking, I feel clients are holding back. At Sandler Training, we have identified a series of factors contributing to negative networking experiences. What we repeatedly see is the absence of a strategy or goals for networking. This means we limit ourselves through feelings of stress or fear, and under-prepare for those more important connections. This in turn creates a lack of confidence when people look to network beyond their immediate professional circle.

The goal of networking is quite simply to create and develop relationships for mutual gain. By using the strategic application of proven behaviours, decision makers can work towards building a good referral-based plan to support this process. This makes networking more rewarding, more productive and helps you to leverage the key relationships needed to meet your goals.

To do this, the first step is to set smart goals — by knowing what you want to achieve at an event, the process becomes more measurable and you will keep your desired outcomes in mind, making the event count. One client approached Sandler with the simple goal of expanding its contact base.

The company secured a lot of business via networking but felt that their current contacts had provided all the introductions they could. The smart goal we set was for each member of the team to speak to three new people at every event. It became easier to measure the success of an event and having a focus made team members more confident.

The second step is to be clear in your mind what the purpose of building these relationships is, and ensure that they are mutually beneficial, be it recruitment or lead generation. Think about the key relationships you have identified as your goals. What can you and your organisation do to support them and deliver value?For example, a marketing company approached Sandler to help them network effectively and win more business. Sandler helped the company to discover that focusing on recruitment agencies would achieve this objective. The rationale behind this strategy was that growing companies recruit and while they may not be overtly seeking marketing support, they are likely to need it or be on the verge of seeking it. With this networking strategy in place, the company has managed to increase its business wins through networking by 26%.

Good networking builds an ongoing stream of qualified referrals rather than just an immediate exchange of business cards. It’s not about the one off event but a longer term shift in your own mindset and approach. Joining strategic organisations is part of this — groups that will help raise your profile, connect with like-minded individuals and prospects, and open doors to new opportunities. This can be complemented by your social networking activity.

In turn, this qualifies you as part of a wider referral system and plays to the earlier point of being able to deliver value. Again this requires thought and time investment and is not a short term activity but a long term plan.

Key to this is how you approach the contacts you have in mind. While it sounds obvious, you need to be mindfully interested and interesting. Research the people within your network system so you can ask informed, intelligent questions — professional and personal. This isn’t about creating the superficial small talk associated with networking; rather, it is helping you to engage emotionally with contacts. While you have business goals in mind, it is only through emotional engagement that you can build that personal, relevant and enduring relationship. Delivering value to your network is key to this; helping contacts through yourreferrals builds vital goodwill and mutual trust within your business relationships.

Effective networking extends beyond the event. A successful referral system requires follow up. This has to be consistent and constant so that you embed the relationship for the long-term. It will also allow you to track your results, tying back to the smart goals set at the outset. Success really does breed success and with the right system in place, you will achieve a far higher return on investment. Being accountable to your networking plan is critical here; share your plan with colleagues, employees and your Personal Board of Directors to demonstrate your commitment to the process.

Adopting the Sandler networking approach will help a company build a framework for an on-going stream of qualified referrals for your business. Sandler recognises that not everyone is born a natural networker and people do hide behind social networking because it’s easier and requires no stilted conversations and contrived discussions. However, while social networks are a great starting point, nothing takes the place of networking in its traditional form.

Sandler Training is the UK’s leading sales, management and leadership training organisation, with 28 centres of excellence across the country. The Sandler method uses non-traditional, disruptive methods to deliver long term performance improvement on a personal and professional level.

Sandler Training in the UK is part of a global organisation with over 40 years’ experience; its headquarters are in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.