Networking effectively can be a confusing undertaking. There are a whole lot of things to keep in mind, and many of them change according to the situation. I guess this is because networking and building long-term, sustainable, and reciprocal relationships require dealing with people; flighty, whimsical, moody, unpredictable people. Don’t you think that a networking framework would make remembering the most important elements of relationship building easier? I do.
I came up with the GARDENER acronym as a way to make my networking efforts more effective. Similar to the acronyms that are popular in the field of goal achievement (SMART being the principal one), condensing the things you need to keep in mind when networking into an easy-to-remember acronym makes the task of creating a mental checklist more effective than if you didn’t use an acronym.
Why Choose the Word “Gardener” for the Acronym?
If you think about it, networking is a lot like gardening. At its very core, when we build our network, we are growing relationships as we would be growing flowers, shrubs, or trees in a garden.
Before we start, we need to make sure we have prepared the ground within which the seed of our new relationship can take route. We must have something to offer those we want to connect with and we must have a plan for how we are going to go about it.
The first interaction is the planting of a seed. If that interaction develops into a conversation, then the seed takes root. We then have to nurture that relationship, the way we need to nurture a growing plant. We must return to it regularly to water it and make sure it gets enough sunshine.
Similarly, we need to reconnect with our prospective network connections (what I call “prospects”) regularly to cultivate our relationship. We need to show kindness and considerations for them and share our knowledge and insights. This will show our sincerity and “feed” the relationship.
Most importantly, we must not smother the new relationship with too much attention, just as we wouldn’t want to inundate our fledgling plant with too much water or sunlight and risk killing it. We must be patient and establish a routine through which we provide enough encouragement and help to foster our relationship without becoming “clingy”.
And finally, when your relationships have grown and blossomed, they will start to bear fruit and offer the seeds of new relationships that will contribute to your success. In time, your garden will expand and flourish.
As I think you can see, visualizing your network as a garden makes a lot of sense.
The GARDENER Networking Framework in a Nutshell
What follows is taken from my book about relationship and relationship building.
The acronym and what each letter stands of is;
- G is for Give
- A is for Acknowledge
- R is for Reciprocity
- D is for Develop, Deepen and Distinguish
- E is for Engage
- N is for Never
- E is for Eliminate
- R is for Regular
Easy. Let’s now go through each of these parts of the networking framework so that you can see how effective and powerful it can be.
G is For Give
I have a little saying that I “borrowed” and modified from part of JFK’s famous inaugural address – ask not what your network can do for you, ask what you can do for your network. This sums up how a successful networker thinks.
Giving is the key to networking and it’s no accident that it takes pride of place in this acronym. Giving demonstrates your sincerity, your generosity, and your concern for their well-being. Giving provides social proof that you are interested in that person for who they are and not what you can get from them.
The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.Keith Ferrazzi
Yes, some people will take what you give and never give you anything in return. They may be weeds in your relationship garden, that is true, and if they prove to be this, discard them (by removing them from your follow-up cycle). Remember, however, that some people may accept what you offer and not return the favor because they simply do not think they have anything of value to offer you.
What should I give?
Give value. Value is anything that could be of benefit or use to the recipient or their business. Value does not have to be something purchased but could also include attention to and genuine interest in the person or affairs of the connection.
For example, even the simple act of contacting a connection could be construed as value. This is due to the fact that your initiative is not only helping to build your mutual relationship but by enquiring about their current situation and well-being in a genuine and heartfelt way, you are allowing them the opportunity to vent and/or seek assistance.
Bear in mind that you should periodically provide value that proves you are paying attention to who they are, what they do, and what they might need. It could be as simple as sending a relevant link to a current online article.
Here is a list of possible gifts that you can send to them.
- A link to an interesting website, web page, video, infographic, or online article that might be of interest to them and offer them relevant thoughtful insights, information, or advice.
- A meme or cartoon that relates to their industry, job, situation, or interest.
- An e-book that will be of interest to them.
- A hand-written note that you post to them. This is a great idea if you want to thank them for sending information or a link to you, for sharing your content on social media, or for giving an opinion.
- A list, article, white paper, or infographic that you create for your connections to help them get the most of something you know a lot about. Make sure not to sell anything – don’t even mention what you sell in it. It must be purely to help and inform.
- If you have no other ideas, simply ask a question about what they do. You can take a look at sites like quora.com for ideas about what questions you may be able to ask. Most people won’t mind answering the question if it is well thought out and pertinent. You might also ask about some content (an article, podcast, or video) they have recently posted or something they have recently achieved.
Gifts should not cost anything – or they should cost very little. Things like e-books and posting notes will cost a few dollars and these kinds of gifts can be sent sporadically to those in your network who you think have the most potential of becoming core circle members.
When should I give it?
I would suggest sending a gift when you contact your outer circle connections. These connections are those that you contact every two or three months. Although there is nothing wrong with simply reaching out, sending a gift is a great excuse for getting in touch.
As far as your inner circle connections, you will be contacting them more regularly and so you might only consider sending gifts every second or third time you reach out to them.
Finally, you will be in touch with your core circle members every one or two weeks and so you need only send a gift once a month or so.
How should I find the right gift to give?
Schedule a campaign to send a larger gift (content that you generate specifically for your network or an interesting e-book that you come across) to all of your network connections once a year. You might also schedule a campaign to send hand-written notes to your network once a year.
You might then create a file on your computer where you collect links to interesting articles, videos, and other content. Collect links to interesting, funny, and informative content that will appeal to most people as well as content that will appeal to specific members of your network according to their interests and/or industry. A good idea is to use downtime – time that you don’t feel like working but are still at your computer – to surf the Internet for contact.
A is for Acknowledge
The term “acknowledge” refers here to finding their true value to your network by exploring who they are, what they do, why they do it, what their interests are, and anything else you can find out. The more you know about someone, the easier it is to build a relationship with them. You are also able to refer them to other connections who may need their services or advice.
Try to find out as much as you can about them by looking online (looking at their social media profiles and posts as well as their website and/or blog). You can also ask them directly if you have established a rapport with them. The information you discover is the key to unlocking a solid relationship with them.
Once you have done your research, it is essential that you set up a system through which you can build up a profile of each of your connections. This can be done over time, but after each interaction with them, you should be able to update their profile with some new information. Perhaps they mention their wife or their dog. Perhaps they tell you about the vacation they just went on. Even small details are important as they help flesh them out in your mind.
Profile Building Solutions
Building a profile of each of your connections allows you to save details about them that you would otherwise forget over time. Let’s look at some options that are best suited to this task.
You could create a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets and record details about each connection therein.
It’s simple and free (Google Sheets is free, anyway). Fairly effective for very small record sets.
Doing it this way is not ideal for recording large amounts of information and tracking changes. Spreadsheets can quickly become unwieldy.
Some business Customer/Client/Contact Relationship Managers can function as effective networking profile managers. Some of the more popular ones include Zoho (https://www.zoho.com/crm/ which is a paid solution) and bitrix24 (https://www.bitrix24.com/features/crm.php – this is a free solution), although there are scores more as well.
CRMs have loads of functionality and can be used for more than just storing information about each of your connections.
Being business-related solutions, most CRMs come with many features that increase their complexity if you are looking for something to manage your network only. Most of the full-featured CRMs are not free with some having high fees, and where free options are offered, these can be quite limited in scope.
Tribemine.com is the only dedicated network connection management system, combining the best parts of a CRM (as far as creating and managing connection profiles is concerned) with a networking platform.
It’s built exclusively for networking and relationship building, and so has everything you need and nothing you don’t. This includes a connections profile builder and email reminders (for when you need to reconnect with your network members) as well as a host of other relationship-related tools and facilities.
There is a small cost per month to use it. However, this is purposefully kept as low as possible to make it affordable for as many people as possible. Being a new and paid solution, the community is quite small for those looking to find new connections.
Whichever solution you choose, be sure to find one that includes automated reminders. Establishing an efficient reconnection routine is essential for relationship building and since you will be reaching out to most of your connections sporadically, you must make sure you do so regularly or potentially valuable connections could get “lost” in the confusion.
Many of the automated CRMs have this kind of function. If you are using a spreadsheet, you may have to use something like the calendar app on your phone or computer to remind you when it’s time to contact your connections again.
R is for Reciprocity
One of the foundational precepts of networking is that every relationship must be reciprocal. In other words, both parties to that relationship must contribute to building and nurturing it. If only one person is doing all of the work, then there is no reciprocity.
Reciprocity does not entail that both parties to the relationship need to contribute equally, but there should be a substantial investment of time and money from both sides.
As previously stated, when you first reach out to a new prospect, you must expect that there will be a period during which you do all of the work; you initiate contact, you give, you offer help and support, and so on. However, if you have provided the prospect with value, the prospect should start to take the initiative by reaching out to you from time to time after about six months to a year. When they start to do that, you know that the relationship is potentially viable and so you can start to invest more time and effort in it.
However, if you have regularly reached out to the prospect to offer value and have seen absolutely no reciprocity, then you should declare this prospect “dead wood” and bin the profile (see the “E for Eliminate” section, below).
D is for Develop, Deepen and Distinguish
You should be constantly striving to develop and deepen each and every one of your network relationships. You also want to distinguish yourself.
How should you do this? Let’s begin with the concept of “development”.
Developing a relationship is as much about making yourself into someone others want to know as it is about them checking certain boxes. In this context, development refers to you as well because, through self-development, you increase the chances that they want to know you.
Developing yourself involves working on improving a skillset or talent that could be of benefit to your network. In the same way that online marketing experts suggest that you stake out a niche that you try to dominate, so you could develop a “niche” for networking purposes. This will help you stand out in the minds of your prospects, especially initially. You become a go-to resource for answers to questions related to your niche instead of just one more expert in your field. So many people are chasing connections nowadays that you have to do what you can to stand out. Being memorable means that people are more likely to want to engage with you – see the section on distinguishing yourself, below, for more about this. In essence, you are in effect marketing yourself to them – especially when you are just starting a relationship with a prospect.
Let’s deal with your “expertise niche” in a little more depth. Your niche may not be the only thing you are an expert in. However, it is your signature skill or talent that will help distinguish you and let you stand out in the minds of your prospects and connections. It’s what you become known for. Initially, your connections must think of you as the “mutual fund guy” (even if you have a comprehensive knowledge of all investment markets and vehicles) or the “small business WordPress specialist” (even if you are qualified to do all manner of website design and SEO). Your niche allows you to give those you meet a “hook” on which to hang your identity. It also acts as a door through which they can access all of your other skills.
Finding the right niche can be a challenge as it has to be narrow enough to act as an identifier but not so narrow that no-one would want to engage with you for advice.
If you do develop an expertise niche, you need to develop your knowledge about it as much as possible. You need to publicize that you are the “go-to” resource for questions about that topic. This can be done by answering questions on online forums and platforms like quora.com and then sharing any of your answers that get a lot of positive feedback on social media. You should also be writing and posting articles about your niche on a blog and/or sites like medium.com and even on LinkedIn.
If you cannot come up with a sustainable niche, you could rely completely on what follows.
Whether or not you have an expert niche, you can also distinguish yourself with visual embellishments or “catch-phrases” that will help you stand out.
Visual embellishments could be a signature hairstyle or color. It could also be a distinguishing item of clothing such as a shocking pink jacket, a scarf, signature glasses, and so on). Think of how Steve Jobs always wore the same clothing at presentations. It made him stand out from the suit-wearing crowd.
You could also develop a memorable catchphrase. This is especially effective if you produce videos or run a podcast. If you think about the most popular motivational speakers and coaches, most of them have at least one catchphrase or a memorable quote. People like Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Warren Buffet have many.
According to executiveone.co.nz, you will distinguish yourself by;
- Creating a good first impression
- Following up
- Being active in your networking efforts, which includes writing and posting articles online and commenting on those of others.
Developing and Deepening Your Relationships
Developing and deepening a relationship involves working steadily on it over time so that your prospect gets to know you as you get to know them. This is done by taking a keen interest in them and their business and trying to keep up with what’s happening in their lives. You don’t have to spend a vast amount of time scouring the Internet for information about them, however. You can search for new developments in their businesses and lives by visiting their business website, their social media profiles, and doing an online news search, and this could be done just before you reconnect with them.
Most relationships will develop along a predictable path, passing through characteristic phases along the way. These phases are similar to those you would find in the progression towards friendship in a social context, although I have modified them somewhat to suit the networking environment.
E is for Engage
Engagement is the key to network building, Importantly, engage does not mean to merely talk to or send a message to your network connection.
Engage infers that you seize their attention and make them want to interact with you. Easier said than done, I know.
What are some ways in which we can engage?
Maintain a Profile
In order to be able to engage sincerely with your connections, you have to know as much about them as possible. If you know who they are, what they do, what their interests and opinions are, and what they like and don’t like, you have a far better chance of finding a point through which to ingratiate or impress them.
Building profiles of connections takes time as you collect snippets of information over time, sifting through information that they (or others) post online to find the little nuggets of insight into who they really are. Thankfully, there is a trend towards making oneself more personable by revealing more personal information in the content that one might publish, so finding this information is easier than before. However, it is still not easy – and the fact is that many people will still not reveal anything about themselves outside their professional persona.
And because building profiles about people requires commitment over the long-term, keeping the information you have gathered organized and current is extremely important. For this reason, I strongly recommend that you use an online tool or set up a system of your own to do this.
Although you can use CRM software, most of it is sales orientated, which means that it lacks certain networking functionality that can come in handy. If you are looking for an effective online solution, you can take a look at tribemine.com for the world’s only dedicated networking CRM. Alternatively, you can use a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, although these tools are not suited to the storage and organization of large data sets. Finally, you can set up a template that you copy and manually keep updated.
N is for Never
There are a few things that you should never do unless you want to scuttle your networking attempts at the get-go. It is important to be able to take a step back and look at the way you interact with others objectively so as to identify whether or not you are guilty of one or more of these social faux pas. If you see any signs of them, be sure to focus on eliminating them or you will jeopardize your networking strategy more effectively than if you didn’t even meet anyone as you would have a bad reputation rather than no reputation at all. People also have a tendency to remember jackasses.
Okay, so let take a look at the networking cardinal that must be avoided at all costs.
This is the most important thing to avoid doing. Most people dislike networking because they are tired of having their expectation of meeting potential connections dashed by people who latch on to them and bombard them with sales pitches, even if those sales pitches are subtle.
No-one likes being sold to. Briefly tell them what you do and what you sell and if they are in the market for such products or services, they will most probably ask questions and even express interest in buying from you.
If they do, give them some of the basics and then ask them if you can arrange a time and place to show them all the benefits and ins-and-outs of what you have to offer. Should they be keen, tell them you will be in touch about setting it up and then return the conversation to them – who they are, what their interests are, and so on. After all, you are there to network, so do so. Try to keep networking and selling separately.
Separating the networking and the selling allows you to prepare for the pitch, while also allowing you to present your offering in an environment that is far more conducive to doing business than a networking event or the queue at the local grocery store. Most importantly, however, is that it gives you a reason to meet with the person a second time, helping to establish a relationship.
Few people like braggarts. These are the people who drone on constantly about their achievements and possessions and always seem to want to “one-up” those they are talking to. If you mention that you went to Venice, Italy for a week’s vacation, they will tell you how they have been there many times – the last time for two months – and they stayed in the best hotel in the city and they had dinner with the city’s mayor and so on and do on.
Instead of telling people what you have done, rather confine yourself to asking questions. That way you cannot brag. If they ask a question, answer it but be concise before asking another question.
Never Dominate the Conversation
Some people like to talk. However, when networking, listening is a better option. The benefits of listening far outweigh those of talking. When you talk, you get to tell the person you are talking to about what you do and sell, that is true. But let’s face it, unless they are in the market for what you are selling, the chances are that they aren’t even paying attention to what you are saying. They are more likely thinking of what next to say.
By listening, you are able to
- Find out what their interests are and what is important to them. These are the very foundations upon which you will build your relationship with them.
- By allowing them to speak, they will most probably find you a pleasure to talk to – even if they are the one doing all the talking.
- Great conversationalists are good listeners.
The truth is that few people are able to just shut up and listen. However, with practice, you can become a good listener. It requires focus and dedication, but you may be surprised at the results.
E is for Eliminate
Once you start trying to meet people, you will find that you start gathering networking prospects fairly quickly. Some won’t make the cut to become a contact, but many will. And as you build your relationships with your contacts, there will be a steady flow of people into your network’s outer circle (see the section on Circles, above). Before you know it, your outer circle may have several hundred people. When this happens, it’s time to prune.
In another gardening analogy, just as you would cut away dead branches from a bush or tree, so you need to periodically “cut away” the dormant relationships in your network. They are taking up valuable resources – like your time and attention – that could be better spent on more reciprocal or newer connections.
If you are keeping in touch with a connection (in whichever circle of your network) and they have not reciprocated within the period in which you have reached out to them four to six times, consider removing them from their current position in your network. This may mean moving them to a lower tier or making them a contact once more.
Remember that your network is an asset. Like a musical instrument or racing car, it needs to be tuned properly to perform at its best. It’s something you have worked hard to create and those who are in it must be the right caliber – not only for your benefit but for the benefit of the entire network. Not everyone will be and its’ not as if you are insulting them by moving them elsewhere in your network. After all, the structure of your network is known only to you and is (most probably) private.
R is for Regular
If you want to lose weight, get fit, or start a business, you need to work at it and put time into it, right? The same is true of networking. To build an effective network, you need to work at it regularly. Regularity is key.
You should be focused on meeting new people wherever you can, whether that’s at conferences and events, or even just when flying or waiting in lines. You need to sustain the flow of prospects into your networking “machine” to improve your network and to compensate for those who will be “pruned”.
More than that, you should set up a schedule to reconnect with your connections on a regular basis. This means sending an email or letter or an invitation to meet up. Regular interaction solidifies relationships and allows them to grow and flourish.
Set Up a Reconnection System
A reconnection system is a process through which you are able to track your interactions with your connections and set up reminders for ensuing ones. A reconnection system is crucial for staying in contact with a large group of people, especially one that is segmented into tiers (circles, in the case of networking). There is no way that the average person can remember when they last caught up with a connection, let alone what you chatted about.
Your reconnection system would be one of the systems that forms part of your network management toolset.
Reconnection systems come in a variety of flavors. Whichever one you choose, realize that it will take some time and effort to set up and maintain. The simpler the system, the more work it will require.
And do not think you can build an effective, valuable network without a reconnection system. That’s like saying your car doesn’t need wheels.
Here are a few of the main ones.
1. Manual (Paper and Pen)
In its most rudimentary form, a reconnection system can consist of the printout of a template that is copied and filed. Each sheet can be assigned to a connection and their details and news can be updated manually each time you reconnect with them.
The downside of this system should be obvious. It will take a lot of effort to set up and maintain. Searching the profiles must be done manually and where your network grows above fifty connections, it becomes extremely unwieldy. And need we say anything about the waste of paper and toner ink.
The benefits are few and far between. Actually, aside for not needing a backup, there don’t seem to be any.
Next up is Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets (or similar). Traditional computer spreadsheet programs offer limited viability for the purpose of networking, and here’s why.
Firstly, although you can back huge amounts of data into them, getting at it is difficult. They may have a search function but entering all the profile data of a person onto a single row makes scrolling through the information a nightmare.
Secondly, they are complicated to use for most normal people, especially where numbers and dates are automatically formatted, leading to confusion and frustration.
From the perspective of reconnecting with your network, spreadsheets do not offer reminders when the date set for reconnecting with a particular connection comes due.
Finally, the time involved in finding records and updating them, especially where you have a large data set, can be excessive.
On the other hand, databases do have some benefits. They are free (in the case of Google Sheets) and they can be searched. If you just want to store the basic details about a person – name, contact details, and business – then they are suitable. However, you need more than that for proper networking.
3. CRM (Customer/Client Relationship Manager)
Now we’re getting into the realm of real networking. CRMs are online platforms, typically designed to help you build and maintain relationships with clients, but many offer robust profile building tools. These allow you to build up a well-rounded picture of each of your connections by adding details about who they are and what they are doing.
Importantly, especially when looking at these platforms from the perspective of keeping in contact with your network, many incorporate reminders to will alert you when you next need to reach out to a particular connection.
As for the downsides of using a CRM, from a purely practical perspective, CRMs are designed as sales tools and so a lot of the functionality of the system is focused on that. This means that you won’t be using a lot of the features (unless your connections are also your clients) and they can get in the way a little.
CRMs also do not have networking-specific tools in them, things like relationship grading, the ability to introduce connections to one another, network messaging, and others.
Finally, although some CRMs are free (Bitrix, Zoho and Hubspot, for example), others can get quite pricey.
4. Tribemine (tribemine.com)
I have mentioned Tribemine in a previous section, but it bears discussing here as well. Tribemine is the online dedicated online networking CRM (Connection Relationship Manager) available. Unlike other CRMs, it is designed specifically for networking and so everything in it is focused on that function.
Tribemine allows you to manage your network wherever they are. That means you can create detailed profiles on your connections who aren’t even on Tribemine. You can also meet and build relationships with other Tribemine members to enhance your network.
It also sports a reminder system that alerts you when you next need to reconnect with your connections.
There are numerous other tools available and it’s well worth looking at. It’s not free, costing around $5 per month at the time of writing.
Full disclosure, the author has a vested interest in Tribemine. That said, the platform is still objectively the best at what it does. Take a look for yourself.
What About LinkedIn?
LinkedIn is touted as the best networking tool out there purely because of the number of people on the platform. When the size of the membership is stripped away, the actual networking tools available to you for network building are sparse and are nothing more than a connection system and messaging tools.
LinkedIn is a good networking tool but is not great for network management or reconnecting.
R is also for Reach Out
Networking is a “contact sport”. That means that you have to do the work and connect with others.
Reaching out is a blanket term for “taking the initiative and contacting another person” and it includes things like asking others to connect with LinkedIn or Tribemine, sending a follow-up message to someone you met in person, or even reconnecting with someone you haven’t heard from for a while.
Sitting and waiting for others to connect with you will result in your network looking rather frail.
When reaching out, remember to not send a message “just to say hi”. Many people don’t have the time to respond to messages that seem to want to just shoot the breeze. Instead, have a “reason” for reaching out. It may be a concocted reason, but it will make people want to engage more readily. And this is where having a decent profile on the person you are reaching out to comes into play.
You can use the information you have discovered about the person as the conversation starter. Ask about recent news they posted on their website or about a product or service. Ask a question about their hobby or find a recent article that they might find useful and send the link to them. Congratulate them on posting a good article or for achieving a milestone in their business or career.
There are many options and you can get quite creative with this. Just remember that people like to talk about themselves and what they are doing, so let them.
Remember to make notes about any interaction you have with your connection in the profile of them you are building.
R is Also for Realize your Value to Your Connections
Many people say they don’t network because they have nothing to offer others. That’s not true. Everyone has something that can be useful to others. It might be your knowledge – and not just business knowledge comes in here – your skills, your relationships or your personality.
Ray Weeks is an internal auditor. He works at a large company and on the face of it has little to offer a network – professionally, that it. However, Ray is also a musician, a boater, a fisherman, and a handyman par excellence. And he’s a genuinely nice guy. He would make an amazing networker and has so much to offer his network, perhaps not in terms of sales or business, but in terms of help and advice that would add quality to the life of anyone who started building a relationship with him.
The GARDENER networking framework was created to make remember the quintessential elements of networking easier. Using it means reducing the chance of forgetting something that could really help build a good impression in the mind of your prospect. Why not give it a go?