No one would argue that having a large network is valuable in business development. From getting in the door to turning individual relationships into organizational relationships, having a personal connection to someone at just about any company you’re looking to engage is incredibly helpful.
But how do you actually develop a strong network of relationships that can serve as the gateway to BD opportunities? In my case it comes down to a core rule: Stay in touch with everyone.
To be truly great at business development, you need to be able to maintain long-term relationships. And to do that, you need to have a natural curiosity and interest in other people. Of course, it would be naive to say that a good business development person isn’t always mindful of the value that a person can offer to himself or herself. It’s natural for an ambitious business developer’s mind to race with the possibilities of what opportunities a relationship may bring. But to engender a strong long-term relationship, a business developer must subdue any selfish ambition and allow his or her genuine interest in other people to rise to the surface.
While I can’t truly say I’ve maintained a relationship with just about everyone I’ve ever known, I have made a practice out of staying in touch with people over the past few years and re-engaging erstwhile connections gone cold.
Some examples come to mind:
- I once interviewed for a job I didn’t get. A few months later I emailed the person who would have been my boss to check-in on how the company was going and wish them well. Now I know his company just folded, so he may be looking for a new job. I sent him an email offering to make any introductions that I can if it’d be of help.
- About 2 years ago I saw a listing for an event featuring a panel of business development folks. One of the names sounded familiar — it was someone I’d worked at a startup about 12 years earlier. We hadn’t kept in touch, but I thought it’d be nice to reconnect. I took a guess at his email, shot him a note, and now we catchup every 6 months or so.
- A friend of mine is interested in a job posting at a company, and she noticed I was connected on LinkedIn with the CEO. I vaguely recalled having one or two exploratory partnership conversations with him in the past, but I’d be surprised if he has any recollection of me. No matter, I said to my friend that I’d be happy to drop him a line to request an introduction. I figure he might appreciate the opportunity to connect with viable lead for his company’s candidate search. He responded within minutes.
How to Stay in Touch with Everyone
Staying in touch with people is relatively easy, as long as you do it from the start.
- Email check-Ins: Maintaining a relationship doesn’t require you to meet in person every time. Getting coffee two or three times a year? Delightful. Getting coffee every 6 weeks just because you both promised to “stay in touch?” Quite a time drain. The simple act of sending an email to say, see how things are on their end, and provide a brief update on what’s new with you is sufficient to stoke the flames of a relationship and keep it from going cold.
- Invite them to an event: One of the best things I’ve ever done was to start organizing small dinners for BD people in NYC. We have 4-6 people, over dinner, just chatting. I often invite people that I want to connect with, but they get the benefit of meeting the other like-minded folks at the table.
- Offer introductions, carefully: Offering to facilitate an introduction to someone that you believe can have legitimate benefit to someone is a great way to proactively offer value. As long as you respect their time with a double opt-in first, of course.
Staying in touch is easy enough while the connection is still warm, but what do you do when the contact goes cold? How do you re-engage with someone that you haven’t spoken with in years? You need to reheat the connection.
Just like with Chinese food leftovers, there are two ways to reheat connections: you can slowly bring it back up to temperature as in a conventional oven, or you can microwave them.
Reheating a connection with the low-and-slow oven method takes time, but has the potential to back the full flavor and texture of the original relationship. Reaching out to an old contact for no reason at all other than to say hello and ask how they’ve been is a perfectly nice and neutral way to re-engage someone.
The crucial element in the conventional oven method is the lack of any sort of request. Being 100% focused on the personal relationship may not serve any short-term goals for winning deals, but it’s a human element that is so often missing in our professional lives.
It’s endearing to be asked to connect with a long-lost connection when there is no expectation of giving or getting on either side. Slowly warming up the relationship over time without an ulterior motive — perhaps first with an email, and then an introduction, with an event invite somewhere along the way– can organically restore a relationship to it’s original condition.
A faster but riskier alternative to reheating a connection is to microwave the relationship.
Microwaving is dangerous — just as microwaving some foods can turn them rubbery and gross, so too can you inadvertently nuke a cold relationship by trying to shortcut the cooking process.
A surefire way to turn a relationship to mush is to reach out to a cold connection only to ask for help. There is nothing more transparent, or off-putting, than a thinly-veiled attempt to reconnect draped in a burdensome request for help (“Hey! Long-time no see! [Insert request here]”).
If you’re going to microwave a relationship, the safest way is to at least do it to offer value first. While giving before you get can help warm up a relationship over time, when microwaving a relationship at least aim to give while you get. Providing some form of value — an article they may find interesting that brought them to mind; a listing for a job that you thought might pique their interest — in the same breath as making an ask may not take the stink off your intentions, but at least there is the potential for a mutually beneficial quid-pro-quo.
Being Hot and Cold
Is it sometimes a bit uncomfortable to reheat a relationship? Absolutely. Just like public speaking, reheating a relationship is a practiced skill that you can nurture over time but still may cause some stomach jitters each and every time.
The good news is that unlike public speaking, there is a viable way to avoid having to regularly reheat relationships. Â Keep relationships warm from the get-go, and stay in touch with everyone.