Develop and maintain your network despite COVID-19
The pandemic has complicated many aspects of our professional life, including networking activities. This has created various problems, which will increase over time. Are you wondering how you can cultivate contacts remotely?
Even though Yves Gratton says his professional activities haven’t suffered unduly from the crisis and that he can count on a well-established client list, this financial security advisor and mutual fund dealer representative for SFL Placements notes that one element is starting to become problematic: It’s difficult, even impossible, to develop his network of other professionals.
“Whether it is accountants, tax advisors, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, etc., such contacts aren’t just indispensable for us to best serve our clients with related needs,” he maintains. “They are also major sources for referrals. You have to be knowledgeable about someone’s skills and have confidence in them before you are comfortable sharing files with them.”
In the past, Yves Gratton would regularly join members of his network for a meal. But due to the pandemic, all of that has been put on hold. “Like they say, out of sight, out of mind. It’s clear that virtual meetings can’t replace human contact,” he notes. He emphasizes that the situation may be particularly harmful for newcomers to the field, those whose networks are just beginning to be developed, or are even non-existent.
A more targeted, more efficient network
When everything collapses, we have to invent a new way to network, notes Annie Bienvenue, communications consultant, trainer and coach. “That being said, the model presented up till now—meetings organized by chambers of commerce, for example—were beginning to lose steam. People didn’t have the time for these activities. They often were scheduled after the workday ended or early in the morning, which intruded on their private life,” she notes.
That’s why she thinks we have to learn to better target our efforts. “To succeed, it’s essential to improve your approach, in particular by prioritizing your activities. In the past, you would go to events where you’d collect a stack of business cards, but afterward, very few of them were useful, maybe just one or two in 50 people!” she calculates.
Her recommendation? Do your own research, on LinkedIn for example, then contact the person directly, initially through a message. “For example, you can start a conversation by mentioning that you have noticed their work, or someone talked about them, and that you would like to develop a partnership. Then, if there’s chemistry, you can suggest a web meeting to better get to know each other,” explains Annie Bienvenue.
She believes that once things go back to normal, a hybrid model may become the norm, comprised of equal parts of in-person and virtual meetings.
For young professionals, she suggests being in contact with experienced people and mentors, in order to identify people with whom there is the potential to create business connections. Once this is done, all that will be needed will be to apply the same method: a first contact via text message to see if there is a common interest, followed up by an on-line meeting if desired. “The basic idea is to better choose your contacts before starting to network. It’s a good way to make the most of your time and to be more efficient,” she notes.
Nurture existing connections
Lise Cardinal, author of the book Réseautage d’affaires: mode de vie  and a key Québec figure with regard to training for networking notes that young advisors starting out in the field often use social networks to expand their business contact list. Even if their address book is still thin, she suggests taking the time now to publicize on these networks—for example through posts on LinkedIn or via blog entries—that they have been using this interim period for training and to upgrade their skills. A good investment that is sure to bear fruit.
She thinks that basic principles remain the same. “It’s simple: you don’t take something from an account where you haven’t previously made a deposit. In other words, we don’t ask someone for a service if we haven’t previously done something for them. There has to be some chemistry created, physical distancing won’t change any of that,” she emphasizes.
Even during a pandemic, you can still be sensitive to the potential needs of your contacts, for example with regard to changes in governmental regulations or programs, by suggesting they participate in a webinar that might interest them, etc.
Maintaining your network and keeping it alive requires constant effort. Regular telephone contact is essential; why not arrange virtual meetings if face-to-face meetings are impossible. Lise Cardinal also notes that the pandemic has meant that many people have re-established contact with people with whom they had been out of touch. This may be beneficial for networking. “Many people have realized that it isn’t important to have a great many contacts, instead it’s more useful to take care of the connections you already have,” she notes.
Also, this approach is crucial when you recommend someone to someone else—for example a professional to one of your clients. It’s almost like offering a moral guarantee. “In fact, we should replace the word ‘contact’ with ‘connection’. Good networking means investing in a relationship, not just collecting business cards,” she insists.
In any case, Lise Cardinal reminds us that a network is created and maintained when things are going well. “During the pandemic, we can see who can count on a well-maintained network. Advisors who haven’t had a chance to make themselves known or have neglected networking have paid for this. It’s true with regard to maintaining contact with clients, but also for keeping in touch with other professionals,” she notes.
 Éditions Transcontinental, 264 pages, 2004.