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Getting Business from Strangers

By Marc Kramer

How many times have you flown on an airplane or ridden on a train and sat next to — or across from — someone well-dressed and wondered what he or she does? All of us have, but few of us act on our impulse to say something. We are all concerned about embarrassing ourselves.

No one wants to appear nosey or say something wrong, so we just hide behind our magazines and laptop computers and pretend that the potentially interesting person doesn’t exist or that maybe they will take the initiative and start a conversation.

Don’t be so afraid or preoccupied. You can catch up on your reading and work later. Listen to that friendly voice inside you, and let it out. Say hello and find out who this person is, and what he or she does for a living. You never know what doors that person next to you can open.

Be Prepared
The success of a casual contact will depend on how prepared you are to turn it into a relationship. Make sure you are prepared to network anywhere you go by always carrying the following in your brief case or computer bag:

  • Business card
  • Brochure
  • Sample of your work

Stranger Business
Rather than give you a set of rules for developing a new contact, I’ll tell you a true networking story that led me to a sizable new piece of business.

I was on the afternoon train from New York after meeting with a client. I was mentally exhausted and had a lot of work ahead of me. I found a seat at a table in the club car. Right after I sat down, a well-dressed businesswoman sat down across from me. She took out some work papers and her laptop and began to type away.

I noticed that her stationery had the name of a company I was vaguely familiar with. I asked her if she worked for the Smith Insurance Company and she said yes. I asked her what she did at Smith and she proceeded to describe her job and what she was working on. (Starting a conversation is easier than you think, because the other person usually takes the ball and runs with it, sharing more information about themselves than you might expect.)

When I asked for her company’s web site address, she explained they didn’t have one, but were going to build one. Before I could say another word, the woman asked me what I did.

I told her I developed web site marketing and content plans. I opened my briefcase and showed her a copy of one of my plans. (There is nothing like concrete evidence of your skills when you want to turn a casual discussion into a serious opportunity.) She said we would be interested in speaking with me further and we traded business cards. The next morning, I had an e-mail message from her asking for a date to meet. This chance meeting lead to a $40,000 contract.

Make The Connection
Obviously, not every stranger sitting beside you will need your services. But unless you introduce yourself, you’ll never find the one that does. If the odds seem daunting, consider this. No matter what kind of work you do, part of your job is marketing yourself and finding people who need to buy your services. You get paid for making new contacts; perhaps not immediately, but eventually. That day on the train I collected a $40,000 fee for being a nice, outgoing guy every day I rode the train.

To be a good networker you have to be willing to take the initiative. Here are three ways to open a conversation with the person sitting beside you:

  • If you get a glimpse of their stationery and you have heard of the company, say to the person, "I see you work for the XYZ Company — is that the company that makes the world’s greatest widgets?" If you aren’t sure what the company actually makes, take a guess.
  • If they are using a laptop or some other device, ask them what they think of it. That will start a good conversation because everyone likes to talk about the performance or lack of performance of their technology.
  • If they are reading an interesting book, ask if the book is good. If it’s a magazine, ask if one of the articles on the cover was interesting.

Once you get the conversation rolling, keep it casual and friendly, but move on to the following more relevant questions:

  • What is your position at the company?
  • What do you do?
  • How do you like the company?
  • What is their take on the company and the industry?
  • What is your company’s (or industry’s) biggest challenge?

Listen And Act
People love to talk about themselves and their companies, whether they like the company or not. If they love the company and their job they are only too glad to boast. On the other hand, people who hate their company are thrilled to open up to a complete stranger they don’t think they will ever see again. Either way, listen. You will learn a lot.

After the person has answered all of your questions, they will undoubtedly ask you the same question you asked them. Be ready with a concise description of what you do and have some examples of your work to show. Before you part, make sure you ask for a business card. It’s just as important to share your own business card, but it is critical that you get theirs if you plan to follow up with action.

Within 24 hours make sure you send an e-mail as a follow-up if you are interested in meeting that person again. If you don’t take action, you’ve wasted an opportunity.

Remember: no matter how awkward it seems, it doesn’t take much to get a conversation started, and the reward can be as simple as a new acquaintance, or as significant as a new business contract or a new job.

That person sitting next to you might be your future. Say hello.

Please tell us what you think of this article.

Marc Kramer is the author of Power Networking, a book that provides a methodology for improving your business networking skills. Marc is also president of Kramer Communications, a Philadelphia area firm that develops business, operating, sales, marketing and Internet content plans. Marc can be reached at marc@kramercommunications.


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