The biggest mistake job seekers generally make when it comes to networking is simply failing to recognize the true breadth of the network they have at their disposal. In contrast, some other job seekers have started to appreciate the network they have cultivated, and have started to work it, but are not getting the kind of results a lot of experts promise when they sing the praises of networking.

No big surprise – there are some unread rules for optimal networking. How well you work your network will determine how fruitful your efforts are, how well you are received when you call to setup meetings, and how easily you expand your network.

Let's look at eight rules for job seekers to optimize their networking efforts.

  1. Do not mistake networking meetings for job interviews. When you speak to people currently in your network, or those you're trying to add, make sure you do not insist that you're soliciting job opportunities. In fact, reassure the people you talk to that you are not asking them for a job. Chances are, when you call to try to setup networking meetings, you will hear "sorry, we are not hiring." Here's an appropriate response: "Great. I understand you guys have a very stable work. I'd like to find out more about that that is; I hope to learn something that will help me in my job search." Once you end up sitting across from them, do not change gears and ask for a job.
  2. Drop names (carefully) when reaching out to referrals. If your neighbor Sarah Smith reiterates you an old colleague, John Public, the first words out of your mouth when you call James should be "Sara Smith suggested I give you call." Furthermore, when Sara originally claimed you talk to John, you should have asked her if she'd be willing to call him first and let him know you'd be calling. To use sales parlance, this turns a "cold call" into a "warm call."
  3. Provide a positive reason to meet with people. Let's continue the preceding example. When Sara suggests you talk to John, ask her why. Let's say her answer is "he knows everyone in town." When you call John, say something like "Sara Smith told me that you are a master of networking, and I'm hiring you can share some ideas about how I can use networking in my job search."
  4. Establish and respect boundaries for a networking meeting. Let's say you telephoned John and requested "15 minutes to discuss what you know about the latest technology opportunities for new grads." After 15 minutes, you should thank him for his time and be prepared to leave. He may invite you to stay and continue talking – but it's his call.
  5. Do not leave without another referral. If you sold cutlery, encyclopedias or vacuums door to door in high school, you're familiar with this technique. End each networking meeting by asking for recommendations regarding who else you can talk to. Once again, you may run into objections such as "I do not know anyone who's hiring." A good way around this is "I'd like to talk to anyone you can think of, for any reason. I'm in information-gathering mode." Again, once you get referrals, ask if the person offering them is willing to make a call on your behalf, to mention that you will be calling.
  6. Send a thank you note after a networking meeting. When a successful business person takes 15 minutes or more out of their time, and hopefully shares 1-2 referrals with you, they have done you a priceless favor. Acknowledge it with a thank you card.
  7. Reciprocate. Networking works because a lot of successful business people give their time away to strangers, for no immediate gain of their own. Someday, after networking has led you to new employment opportunities, your phone may ring. When a nervous stranger tentatively requests 15 minutes of your time, make it a priority.
  8. Integrate online job searching with networking. Surfing job web sites is a great way to educate yourself about the types of opportunities available, who's hiring, etc. As you view postings, you may remember that people in your network – friends, ex coworkers, etc. – work for the employers in question. Reaching out to these people for an introduction can be a very effective way of standing out from the other candidates who apply.

There must be a reason that all career coaches agree networking is the golden path to the best job opportunities. It's not an easy path, it is not a quick path. But it can grant you VIP status during meetings (especially useful when it turns out they have opportunities for which you are well qualified) and it can lead you to the 80% of jobs which experts say go unadvertised.

So, to paraphrase a popular program, networking "works if you work it." And it works best if you follow the precedent rules and recommendations.

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