[IMGCAP(1)]Whether you love it or hate it, personal networking is one of the best ways to build your business. But are you getting the most from your efforts?

We all have limited time and are being pulled in 20 different directions on a daily basis, so when you actually take the time to go to that cocktail event, or show up at the association luncheon, make sure you are getting the most from your efforts and turning those leads and contacts into true prospects.

So, you decided to go to a networking event last night. You shook a lot of hands and picked up quite a few business cards. Now what? Here are some ideas of how to make the most from this event.

Enter Them into Your Database
Don’t just stick those cards into your Rolodex for future reference. Enter them into your database. And don’t just enter the vital information, but make a few notes as well. Include where you met, what you discussed and any follow up efforts you make. Outlook works, but you may want to consider a true customer relationship management system as well.

There are many out there, some more expensive than others, but if you are dealing with more than a few contacts, these tools will make your life a lot easier in the long run. (I personally use BatchBook. For $9.95 a month, it allows me to enter all the information I want, and even copy that contact on e-mails. This way I have an easily accessible record of all my e-mails to that contact for future reference.)

Connect Them with Appropriate Leads
Whether you call it the Golden Rule, karma or “paying it forward,” introducing people to others in your network will reap tremendous rewards. Become a true connector, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly this comes back to you.

I am always looking for introductions that I can make, and most of them have nothing to do with my business. But if I know an attorney who works with business advisors on a regular basis, I’m going to introduce Justin to Nancy in a heartbeat. Ultimately, when Nancy or Justin meet someone who needs marketing services, I’m going to be the first person they think of and the introductions will come back my way down the road. It may never happen, but it does work out more often than not.

Send Them a Note
Once you have their information entered into your system, and have thought of potential introductions to help their business, send them an e-mail (or some prefer a handwritten note). Say how nice it was to meet them, reiterate anything you discussed at the event and invite them to lunch or coffee (and include a few potential dates as well).

Ideally, you should send this note within 24 hours of meeting. He or she may have met 15 people at that event, and consumed a few glasses of wine while there too. If you wait a week or longer, they may have no memory of you, or have a hard time remembering if you were the woman in the red dress or the blue suit. Time is of the essence, and you will stand out if you reach out to them quickly.

Connect to Them on LinkedIn
While you are sending your note, send them a LinkedIn request as well. LinkedIn is an amazing tool, and the broader your network, the more useful it is. And when you send the request, NEVER use the standard, pre-filled copy in the invitation. This may be my own personal pet peeve, but take 30 seconds to write something personal in that request. Even if it’s as simple as, “It was great meeting you last night. I look forward to our coffee on . In the meantime, I’d like to add you to my personal network on LinkedIn.”

Seriously, this takes very little time, but will make you stand out from the pack that just hits “send,” and show the recipient that you care enough to personalize your message.

Ask for Referrals
When you do meet for that coffee in a week or so, now is the time that you can ask for references. Don’t make that your opening line, but once you’ve learned a bit more about your contact’s business, and told them about yours, you’ll be better able to ask for appropriate introductions. Most people are happy to do help you out, but want to know more about you before they do.

Reciprocate too. You may have already sent a few introductory e-mails after your initial meeting, but now that you know more, there may be others that would be a good fit. And keep it up too. You may meet someone six months down the road that would be a perfect client for this new colleague. Don’t be shy about introducing them at that time either. They will appreciate it, and it will also keep you top of mind when they need your services.

If you systematize this process, you’ll be amazed at how a little bit of effort will pay off in the end.

Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk is president of BBR Marketing.

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