8 unorthodox tips for growing your professional network

A good professional network starts with what you have to give

You might not know how sales or networking work. That said, I doubt you like being on the receiving end of either. Tell the truth: How do you feel when someone calls to sell you something? Right—I thought so. How about when someone invites you to “join their network”? Exactly.

Part of the problem with sales and networking is that you start with what you need. You want to sell your thing. You want new opportunities. You want people to value your expertise. To get what you want, though, you’ll need to change your perspective. Specifically: make yourself available to others and build real relationships. An easy way to do that? Offer to help. Here are 8 tips for doing so:

1. Let them come to you

I don’t tell people this (because I worry it’ll encourage bad behavior); but, I’ll take a risk and give it a shot. When they work well, Officehours sessions can function like reverse sales calls. Let’s say you run a marketing company and need to drum up new work. Sure, prospective clients won’t return your calls. But, I assure you, people at such companies have questions they’d like answers to.

So, tell people you’re available—no strings attached—for 10 minute sessions on Officehours. Some might come to you. During those sessions, you can prove your knowledge/expertise, and show how easy you are to work with. Once they’ve seen this for themselves, they’re more likely to ask you to take part in a paid gig. This isn’t wishful thinking—it’s happened to me.

2. Assist those you can’t benefit from, today

As a college student, I delivered bottled water to businesses, to earn money for school. Those I delivered to saw me in a few different ways. Some decided I was a lowly delivery boy—and treated me poorly. Others looked upon me as a person and were both pleasant and courteous. At the end of my workday, I went home and talked to my parents and friends about what these people were like. As you’d likely imagine, some of these groups earned new business as a result. Others? Not so much.

That 18-year-old who wants some tips on how to break into the industry? In five years, she could be your next star employee. Or, her parents might work for companies that could retain your services. Or, she might find herself heading a department, at some point in the future—and need to contract someone with your expertise. There are few downsides to acting a mensch, now; meanwhile, in the future you might benefit. (And even if you don’t, it’s good karma.)

3. Talk to those who everyone else ignores

You likely woke up to some sales emails or feedback requests in your inbox. Most delete these messages on sight. Others even send abrupt responses that read: “Unsubscribe.” (I admit it: I’ve done both.) This is a bad move, though. It shuts down communication with someone who might be a great person. So, I say you turn the whole situation around.

Try responding with a: “I don’t have much time, but you can book me for 10 minutes on Officehours: [Insert the URL to your Officehours profile].” Those who’d like can book a spot, and the 10 minute countdown keeps call from running long. This person will remember you as one of the few courteous people that was willing to talk—and share some ideas.

4. Give time as your budget allows

You can’t hit 100 sales calls a day. (And, even if you could, this is a low yield activity.) Still, countless people spend their days begging others to hear their pitch—but are “too busy” to lend a hand. See the paradox in this?

I know you’re busy. I also know you need to find new opportunities. I’m not asking you to change much of anything. But, I do think that volunteering some time each week can do wonders for you. Coach soccer. Join Rotary. Or, set aside 30 minutes a week for office hours.

The trick is to limit how much you do. If you commit to something too demanding, you’ll find yourself frustrated. So, offer what you can, and no more. It’s better to give less, happily, than be bitter about offering more than you can manage.

5. Expect nothing

Whenever I hear, “what’s in it for me?” I feel sorry for the person saying those words. Such thoughts are indicative of entitlement and impatience. Both are characteristics that stunt one’s development. I’ve already addressed why you should concentrate on helping others. So, let me talk about patience.

Opportunities don’t happen when you want it to. Like planting a garden, growth takes time. Don’t get frustrated when growth is slow—and don’t give up gardening. Manage your expectations and practice good habits. Show up. Offer help. Put in the time. And expect nothing in return. In time, your garden will grow.

6. Make it easy for to ask for help

You might consider yourself approachable. Others might not realize that, though. In fact, some might feel intimidated to reach out, even if they have questions they’d love to ask you. There’s a solution though: Tell them you’re open for business. (If you’ll pardon my ham-fisted metaphor.)

It’s not enough to have a profile on Officehours. It’s not enough to wait for someone to find you. Nope—you need to make your availability obvious to those who might need help. Not sure how to do this? I wrote a post on how to promote your office hours, and Officehours advisor Thomas Jockin shares his thoughts in this post. Got other ideas on how to do so? Share them with me!

7. Ask someone for advice

You want to know why people don’t hire you as much as you’d like? It’s not your résumé, and it’s not the quality of your work. The sole reason you aren’t getting the calls you want is that people don’t know you. I see this all the time: an owner of a design studio don’t get enough requests for work, so he/she redesigns their website. And you know what happens? They still don’t get requests for work! This is because people don’t hire/contract others only for their skills.

The strange truth is that your customers might not even know if you’re any good. Instead, they hire people they trust—and trust is the outcome of consistent interaction. So, if no one’s asking for your advice, ask for theirs. Itemize your challenges, reach out to some advisors, and start a discussion. You’ll learn something—and you might establish some new connections.

8. Recommend someone else

One of the worst ways to build your reputation as a professional, is to take on jobs you’re ill-equipped for. Those who do, you tend to do a crummy job, anger their clients, and distract themselves from what they’re good at. Some do exactly that, though. Remember: you don’t need to act on every opportunity that presents itself.

Want people to recommend you? Take a pass on projects you aren’t perfect for, and recommend someone who’s better suited. If it’s a good suggestion, the client will appreciate you doing what was right. Plus, the person/company you recommended will appreciate the support. In time, they might return the favor. Business isn’t a zero-sum game. Passing an opportunity along to someone who’s right for the job is a smart way to build your network.

Please don’t be a douchebag!

I tried to remain succinct in the above article, but I know I carry on. This is because good networking/sales requires a viewpoint change—not just different tactics. So, I figure it’s important to outline my underlying thinking. (I typically do this on my personal blog.) Every positive aspect of my career/business happened as a result of real, honest discussions. I can’t see any reason why you can’t use the same strategies.

On that note, I have a personal appeal to you: Please don’t make Officehours shitty. Those who misread the above post will join the network, request random sessions, and then waste members’ time. This is no way to network, and nothing will come from it. Instead: Go slow; Be respectful; And treat others like you want to be treated. It might not happen overnight, but I assure you: in time, this works.