In the world of accounting marketing, as in any marketing, building your network of referral sources and centers of influence is critical. Many young CPAs are tasked with building their professional network early in their careers, but are not always given the necessary tools and training on how to do it.

Those of us who are experienced networkers know that one of the best ways to expand and nurture our professional referral network is through regularly attending gatherings where networking takes place. These can be as basic as Chamber of Commerce events or the Rotary Club, or they can be more narrow in focus, where everyone in the room shares a common industry - biotechnology, for example.

Either way, the basic rules of networking events remain the same:

1. Define your purpose for attending a given event. Why have you chosen to attend this particular event? Are you there to just shake a few hands, exchange some business cards and otherwise be sociable? Did your boss make you go? Are you there only looking to increase sales? For your sake, I hope there is more to your attendance. Your purpose for attending a networking event should be to meet other professionals, learn about their challenges and roadblocks, and then figure out how you can help them. If you're only there for yourself, you might as well not show up at all. Networking is a two-way street, and the more you can help others, the more they will help you.

2. Take care of your homework. Learn as much as you can about who might be attending these events. Talk to others who have attended in the past. What types of issues do people in these occupations/industries/geographies face? Are there recent developments that are in the news? Again, learn as much as you can ahead of time. Read the newspaper or business journal. Do a little research on the Web. Talk to those people already in your network who might have similar issues.

3. Dress appropriately. Learn what the acceptable dress is for the event before you show up in your shorts and flip-flops. Remember, this is a business activity and should be treated as such.

4. Know who you are and how you can help. In many cases, you have less than 90 seconds to tell the person you just met who you are and what you do. Not only that, but you will also need to communicate to them how you might help them. This is most often called the elevator speech. Develop it carefully and practice it meticulously so that you can communicate it clearly and quickly.

5. Learn to listen as much as you talk. To be a successful networker, you need to be able to listen to what the other person is saying - not just the words, but the meaning behind them. Sometimes you will need to read between the lines because the person you've just met may not be as good at communicating as you would like. Practice active listening and really learn to digest what the other person is telling you.

6. Be curious and ask questions. Learn to ask questions that will help you connect with that person you've just met. Good, insightful questions will help develop rapport and also help you uncover some of the frustrations and roadblocks that the other person might be experiencing.

7. Follow up. In order to be an effective networker, you need to follow up with everyone you meet. As with any other "marketing" activity, follow-up is the key to success. In some cases you may wish to call and try to follow up with a lunch or a meeting. For others it might be a simple e-mail follow-up. Either way, you need to follow up on that initial meeting.

To become an effective networker, you also need to learn to eliminate the following behaviors:

1. Don't be obnoxious. No one likes the loud and abrasive type. Seriously.

2. Don't ask too many questions. After all, this is networking, not an interrogation. You can ask more questions in your follow-up meeting.

3. Don't linger in one place too long. People attending networking events want to meet and learn about as many people as they can. You should do the same.

4. Don't think only of yourself. It's pretty easy to spot the person in the room who's there solely for themselves. Most good networkers will spot that person pretty quickly and stay away.

5. Don't be a bragger. If you focus too much on yourself, you'll turn others off. Keep it focused on a quick summary of who you are and what you do, then move on to learning more about them.

6. Don't look for free advice. This is a networking event, not a chance to corner someone and get free accounting, legal, financial or other advice.

7. Don't come unprepared. This is a cardinal sin. You must do your homework and be prepared to talk with other folks about a wide range of topics.

Learning to network effectively is a must-have skill for young CPAs wanting to further their career. Knowing some of the ins and outs early on will help you succeed later on and keep your career moving forward.

Timothy Allen is founder and managing principal of Madison, Wis.-based AMG Marketing. Reach him at tim@amgmarketing.net.

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