Are you one of the millions of small business owners and professionals who have attended networking events held by the chamber of commerce or a business organization and found the experience to be far less than what you had hoped?

Attending networking events has proven to be frustrating and ultimately a waste of time for many business owners and professionals.

Typically, the frustrations and wasted time arise from two basic issues:

1. Overblown expectations

2. No plan of attack

Networking events, especially those of a general nature organized by the chamber or a general business organization, will not provide you with a plate full of potential prospects.

If you can walk out of a networking event with three or four good potential contacts, you have done well. Unfortunately, many, especially those who are not networking junkies, attend these functions with the hope of leaving the event with a whole stack of business cards of great prospects.

When their expectations are not met, they conclude that networking isn't all it's cracked up to be and decide their time is better spent elsewhere.

In addition, most attendees do without a plan for using their time to the maximum. Rather than an organized plan, they simply attend hoping to "run into" prospects. Yet, if you attend regularly and with realistic expectations, networking can eventually pay great dividends.

There are three "secrets" to making networking pay:

1. Know where you're going

Knowing who is likely to attend the event you are considering is as important as attending the event. If you are considering going to an event that you have never attended before, try to get a copy of the host organization's member roster.

By examining the membership directory, you can get a fairly good idea of the type of people you can expect to meet. If it appears there are a reasonable number of people and businesses of interest, plan on attending.

2. Know why you're going

Go with a definite number of contacts you want to make. Determine how many good contacts you will need to make in order to make the investment of time worthwhile. Depending on your product or service, that number may be only one or two—or five or six.

By establishing realistic, objective criteria, you can easily determine whether your time was well spent and whether you might want to attend the event in the future.

3. Have a system for working the event

For most business owners, the real networking-event killer isn't so much who is in attendance or even their own unrealistic expectations, but the time they waste during the event. Working a networking room requires planning and a clear vision of how you will spend your time.

I and may of my clients have found the following networking method easy and very effective.

Arrive about 15 minutes before the official event start time. Wear a large, easy-to-read, high-quality, permanent nametag. Of course, have lots of business cards. Business cards should be blank on the back. Wear clothing with two easy-to-reach pockets.

Station yourself close to the entry door—close enough that people might mistake you for one of the hosts. Greet each person as he or she enters. Nothing more than a greeting—and, hopefully, noticing their company name: All you want is to hear a name—put a name to a face and to make a quick judgment as to whether they might be a prospect.

When arrivals begin to slow, begin your progression around the room. Move in one direction—left or right. Greet the first person or group of people you meet. This round of conversations should be short—two to three minutes at most. Your goal is to introduce yourself and learn as much as you can in a very short span of time about the person or persons you've just met.

Don't clutter the conversation with information about yourself—keep everything focused on the person or the persons you are speaking with. This will be your second meeting with many of these people, although you will probably not remember their names.

Since many, if not most, will offer you a business card, you will begin to segregate cards into an interest stack and a non-interest stack. When you meet someone you believe you'd like to get to know better—a potential prospect—put that person's business card in your right-hand pocket. Put the cards of those you don't believe are prospects in your left-hand pocket.

This system allows you to immediately find the cards of those you want to reconnect with during the event without having to try to remember their name.

If you meet someone you would like to get to know better, before moving on to another group let the person know of your interest in learning more about their business and ask permission to make contact via phone at a later date. If the person agrees, take one of your business cards and on the blank reverse side write the day and an hour span of time during which you will call: "e.g., Thursday, March 12, between 10:30-11:30."

That day and time will be the same for everyone you meet whom you want to call. It keeps you from having to remember when you will call, but because it is an hour-long span you'll have time to make several calls without concern that you won't keep your appointment.

Now, move to the next group and continue in this manner for the majority of the event. About 30-45 minutes prior to the end of the event, go into your last phase.

The last phase is taking the few cards in your right-hand pocket and seeking to reconnect with those people. This will be your third chance to meet them and to put a name and face together. In addition, since it will be your third meeting, they'll begin to feel like they know you and they will probably greet you as a friend rather than as new acquaintance. Just as you are implanting their name and face in your mind through multiple meetings with during the event, you're planting your name and face in their mind.

This third conversation will be a little more in-depth, but, again, keep the focus on the other person. Possibly you can move this conversation to the point of inviting the person to lunch instead of a phone call on Thursday. If not, prior to moving to the next person, again mention the phone call on Thursday and hand out another business card with the same information written on the back.

On Thursday, make your phone calls and close for a get-to-know-one-another meeting.

This structure allows you to "meet" a prospect three times during the course of the event, set up a definite telephone conversation, and help both you and the prospect quickly move from the "just met" stage to acquaintance stage very quickly. All without having to remember any details during the course of the event.

If you keep your expectations reasonable and focus you time during the event on the few true prospects you meet, you'll find your time at networking events to be both more enjoyable and profitable.

Note: This article is part of a series on lead generation written by Paul McCord.

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Paul McCord is the author of Creating a Million Dollar a Year Sales Income: Sales Success through Client Referrals (John Wiley and Sons) and the upcoming Planning Your Success: The Ultimate Guide to Creating Your Personal Marketing Plan. He is president of McCord and Associates, a sales-training and management-consulting firm. Reach him at or via