There’s nothing more valuable than your network. It leads to sales, new partnerships, friendships, and career opportunities. For your network to be useful, however, you have to actively maintain it.
There are plenty of expensive ways to do so (like buying a CRM system from a vendor who promises to double your sales) as well as manually intensive ways (like keeping stacks of business cards in your wallet so it resembles George Costanza’s on that episode of Seinfeld).
Me? I like traveling light but I have a large network of clients, friends, partners, and contacts to keep up with. If I let my wallet get too fat with business cards, my sciatic nerve gets pinched and I’m laid up in bed for days. Fortunately I’ve found a solution.
For your network to be useful, it has to be current, categorized, and connected (Wow! I’m using alliteration first thing on a Monday morning. My 12th grade English teacher Mrs. Morgan would be proud). Sorry. Enough rambling. On to how you can maintain your network and keep it healthy.
Keep it Current
If you can’t get in touch with folks in your network, your network is useless.
Outlook. Yes, THAT Outlook (my Mac friends are vigorously shaking their heads right now). I keep all my contacts in Outlook. I keep them up to date. When someone changes jobs and sends out the announcement, I change their info and delete the announcement (after congratulating them, of course).
Occasionally I’ll download my LinkedIn contacts and update all the Outlook address data via import. Once a quarter is enough (think of it like an oil change for your car – only don’t pour oil on your laptop. That would be bad).
I get a new business card? I IMMEDIATELY enter it into Outlook when I get home (there’s nothing worse than letting 100-200 business cards pile up because that just makes for a hideous day of data entry). If I get an email bounceback or a disconnected number notification, I get back in touch with the person and ask for corrected contact information.The only way to maintain and grow your network is to stay on top of the details.
Keep it Categorized
Outlook enables me to tag contacts with categories. I denote contacts as clients, friends, partners, etc. I’ve also created a “Calls to be Made” category that makes my Blackberry an incredible machine for staying connected (next section).
On top of categorizing contacts, I’m also sure to note the city and state of residence. Why? I travel a lot. When I’m passing through a city, I pull up the contacts who live there and see if anyone is available for dinner, coffee, etc.
Categories help me with sales efforts. They help me stay on top of who’s used our services in the past. They help me quickly filter and find connections who might be interested in attending an event in their geography. Categories enable me to capture opportunities that a stack of business cards can’t.
Keep it Connected
All your contact data is useless unless you do something with it. Invite your contacts out for coffee. Touch base with them personally from time to time (sure, blast emails work occasionally but there’s nothing better than a call, a dinner, or just a short personal email to keep your network close).
Remember I mentioned the “Calls to Make” category? I have a lot of windshield time in the car and idle time in airports. Rather than scrolling endlessly through my Blackberry looking for someone to chat with, I filter on the Calls to Make category and methodically work through that list of folks I need to get in touch with. It could simply be a call to say hello or an effort to advance a sale. Having that category makes me more efficient in keeping my network connected and prevents that time in the car or the airport from being frittered away.
I also like putting “ticklers” on the calendar. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a client or prospect saying “call me back in three months.” Either you forget to call or you call them too soon because you’re impatient (I’m NEVER impatient. Um, okay, sometimes I’m impatient). This is where the tickler comes in handy. Just throw an appointment on the calendar for three months out and forget about the contact. When the appointment rolls around, simply pick up the phone and call.
And finally one of my favorite ways to stay connected to folks is by having them in my twitter network (come follow me on twitter). I’m on twitter every once in a while (once in a while = all day every day). I can drop a quick hello and keep up on what others are doing through nothing more than 140 characters. It’s a great tool for maintaining my connections.
The bottom line
A network needs maintenance. Regularly. But you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a CRM system. Simply use the tools you already have and keep up on your network every day. The opportunities that come from doing so are invaluable.
How do you maintain your network? What tips do you have to share? Let’s hear them!