After years of training and coaching, I’ve come to understand that many people are just plain afraid of face-to-face networking — and have different perceptions on what networking is. So when I train staffing professionals in effective networking, I start out by defining what it isn’t: It isn’t selling. It isn’t using people strictly for our own benefit. And it isn’t bribing someone to do something for us.

Then I give them the Amy Bingham definition of networking: connecting with people to exchange information of potential mutual interest.

I watch their faces relax and I know they’re ready to listen.

Why Network?

There are many reasons to network. Here are three good reasons why networking is so essential to growing a business:

You increase your win rate substantially with referrals. The staffing industry is a service business — an intangible one. We can’t demonstrate our last great placement at a trade show like staffing software suppliers can. We have to rely on our reputation — and that means enough people must know how great we are that they’re willing to tell others how great we are. We need word-of-mouth referrals.

People buy from people, not companies. And they buy from people they know, like and trust — or from people who are known, liked and trusted by people they know, like and trust. When you attend a networking event, it isn’t about who’s in the room, it’s about who they’re connected with. So the next time you’re tempted to quickly dismiss someone you’re talking with as unable to help you, stop yourself from making that snap judgment. The young intern you’re sitting next to at a conference workshop just may be roommates with the daughter of a senior executive at the Fortune 500 firm you’ve been targeting. You strike up a conversation, she likes what she hears, and before you know it she’s offering to introduce you to her roommate — who may be impressed enough to tell her mom about you.

Networking makes potential business opportunities easy to come by. Here’s the dirty little secret: all you have to do is open your mouth and talk to people, anytime and anywhere. Then follow the trail to business.

The widely believed concept of Six Degrees of Separation asserts that each of us is separated by another person by no more than six others. A study conducted jointly by Facebook and the University of Milan in 2011 concluded six degrees isn’t in fact six degrees at all — it’s actually 4.74.

If you can really embrace this principle in theory, it should be easy to uncover opportunities.

Not networking can stunt the growth of your business. Too often, networking is an afterthought. Maybe the sales rep in your office attends a Chamber of Commerce function every now and then, but there isn’t an enterprise effort around networking, which can result in lost opportunity and short-circuit growth. Branch offices of national firms in particular can fall into the trap of relying too heavily on their brand and the corporate marketing department to do the work and as a result miss opportunities to embed their firms in the local marketplace. When this happens, independent firms — typically very involved in the community — gain and retain significant market share while the local branch of the national firm struggles to grow. This phenomenon is so pervasive for nationals that some even build enterprise-wide marketing campaigns around “acting like a local.”

With the explosion of social media, it’s tempting to rely purely on social networking for connections to potential clients and candidates if you’re a member of the “I dread networking” club. But it’s important to understand that making connections online can’t replace face-to-face networking. While technology is a great enabler of networking in that it provides multiple avenues for connecting with others easily, real relationships are formed only when individuals connect voice to voice or in person.

If you’re someone with networking reluctance syndrome, it may help to recognize that each time you attend that after-hours chapter meeting of the local professional association packed with potential leads, you create new possibilities for growing your business.

How to Network

Like anything else, masterful networking requires a strategy. Our time is precious and limited, so networking smart is essential. Here are a few pointers:

Think quality over quantity. If yours is a small firm, don’t try to join five trade associations. Start by picking two groups that represent the greatest opportunity for lead sources based on the verticals your firm specializes in and the skills you most often place and get very involved in them.

Divide and conquer. If your firm is larger, there’s no reason every recruiter should attend the same networking events. That’s like having multiple sales reps cold calling the same companies. Instead, engage your team to brainstorm the associations, groups, and community philanthropies they’re most passionate about. Then finalize and divide the list so there is a designated representative for each. Your team is much more likely to own and participate fully in an association or event they personally chose.

Maximize your ROI. Don’t just show up for the local run for cancer; sponsor it and give away promotional items to increase your brand. Similarly, don’t just attend the association’s monthly breakfast meeting; volunteer to speak on trends in employment. If you’re going to devote the time and energy to attending an event, make it work for you!

Focus on being of service to others. If you approach every interaction with a “how can this person help me?” mindset, you may be perceived as self-focused and others will be reluctant to assist you. Instead, your first thought when conversing with someone should be “how can I help this individual?” Masterful Networkers (see sidebar) carry this mindset with them everywhere they go and remain alert to opportunities for others.

Where to Network

The beauty of networking is that it can be done anytime, anywhere and with just about anyone. It’s interesting how when we just open our mouths and begin to talk to people, good things can happen.

On a recent vacation I found myself sitting next to an employment attorney at dinner; we exchanged cards because I need employment attorneys to refer my clients to. When my vacation ended, I shared a ride to the airport with a woman who happened to be an independent meeting and events planner. We exchanged cards because I’m a potential speaker for her clients, and my clients may be able to utilize her services for their meetings and events.

To illustrate just how many activities are fertile grounds for networking, consider these times or events where networking can naturally occur:

  1. At any business or social event
  2. On the Internet (LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are great enablers)
  3. On the commuter train
  4. At the gym
  5. Eating at a restaurant
  6. Shopping
  7. Taking a class
  8. Participating in a sports or leisure activity
  9. At religious services
  10. Volunteering in the community

Finally, remember that networking is an art. It’s not something to just schedule and do at one particular time of the day every week. It’s a behavior that must be ingrained as a habit in our daily lives.