How to Maximize Your Network: Relationships and Referrals

Looking for a new job--whether to change careers or give your current career a boost--is, as they say, more about who you know than what you know. While networking has gone “social,” the basic rule stays the same: Networking is all about relationships.

In the digital age, how do you maintain relationships? Chances are, you have contacts that you don’t see everyday. You’ve worked or studied with them in the past. Simply reading the occasional email from LinkedIn informing you that one of your contacts has been promoted or is celebrating a work anniversary does not mean you have a relationship with that individual.

Find Common Ground

Did you ever have one of those nights with a friend or significant other when you stay up until dawn just talking about all the common interests, opinions, and experiences you’ve had? Maybe you both sported a side-ponytail in the eighties or perhaps you still own the original Nintendo.

Regardless of shared experience or knowledge itself, this connection serves as a foundation for a relationship. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone in your network, but if there’s someone you might want to ask for a referral, take the time to find that common ground.

Stay in Touch

Nothing says “I care about you as a fellow human being” like ignoring someone for three and a half years and then asking for a referral...right?

Staying in touch with connections in your network not only allows you to maintain your relationships, but it can lead to new ones. Say you and John Smith graduated from the same university years back. Maybe you ran into him on your last trip abroad. A couple weeks after you returned home, you sent him an email. You asked about his trip to New Zealand and swapped Instagrams so that he could look at your pictures of the Australian Outback. You’ve found some common ground.

Unless you touch base with John every now and then, he’s likely to forget how it felt to have a shared experience with you. So how do you ensure that you’re regularly touching base with your network connections?

You can use a calendar, a spreadsheet, a to-do list, or even an index card filing system. The key is to avoid using a predictable schedule. No one wants to feel as though they’re only being contacted on the tenth of each month. Mix it up.

What about frequency? Start off touching base with contacts once every three months or so. This way, you’re not pestering your whole network, but you’re staying fresh in your contacts’ minds.

Networking is a Two-Way Street

Relationships require a constant balance of giving and receiving. If all of your attempts to reach out to a contact are to ask for favors or information, she may begin to feel as though you’re taking advantage of that common ground you worked so hard to develop. When you reach out to someone, try sending her an interesting article in a field related to her career. Begin a dialogue on the topic of that article.

Ask how things are going at a contact’s new job, or express interest in traveling to a destination he visited. Not every conversation needs to be centered around work--and it shouldn’t be.

The Big Ask

Even when you’ve nurtured relationships within your network, asking for a referral can be a stressful process. You don’t want to demand too much, but you’re certain that a good word from the right person might just get you an interview with a potential client or employer.

Follow these guidelines to write a successful request:

  • Draft your request for a referral ahead of time.
  • Be concise and grateful.
  • Explain to your contact why you’re reaching out to her or him, and how you would benefit the company or client with whom you want to work.
  • Avoid offering to provide a referral in exchange at this time--though it’s often tempting to acknowledge that two-way street, you don’t want to come off as suggesting that your contact would only bother to refer you quid pro quo.
  • Put your draft down. Go for a walk. Ignore it overnight.
  • The next day, or several days later, re-read and revise your draft.
  • Send your request when the sun is up. You never know what email settings someone has on her phone, and you don’t want to wake someone up with your request.
If you’re ever given an opportunity to refer a contact, do so eagerly if you feel comfortable recommending him. He will remember when you helped out, and will be all the more willing to return the favor down the line.