At a recent winter nonprofit fundraiser, several friends and I were chatting about the opportunities for connecting that seem to happen when we get out and network with others. We all agreed that networking for business happens just about anywhere we find people we know — people who can connect us to other people we want to know.

We also agreed that successful networking includes doing your share to help others create those links. You can’t keep score when networking. In fact, you may often end up doing much more for your connection than gets done in return, but as the old saying goes, “what goes around comes around.” You just have to trust that your help will be reciprocated down the line. The very heart of networking is people caring about and helping other people, keeping in mind that everyone wants to be treated as more than just a connection to other contacts.

Networking certainly isn’t a new concept. It’s been around since dirt. Experts even remind us that we started networking with our first smile as babies. We network at meetings, at volunteer functions, at the grocery store, at Rotary, chamber of commerce functions, at church, and at the hair salon (a lot of networking goes on here; I recently connected with someone who wanted to buy something that I wanted to sell, all via my hairstylist). Everywhere we go is networking territory.

Some rules for good networking include:

  • Always acknowledge help received from others, whether it’s leads, information, introductions, or support of any kind. Send a personal thank you for any help received. Help deserves recognition.
  • Stay close to your network by phone, email, and especially in person whenever possible. Mingle with your network outside of actual networking events. Go to breakfast, lunch, dinner, or coffee — and pick up the check.
  • Generosity is important. You should be prepared to give your time, ideas, and support willingly.
  • Return phone calls and email quickly.
  • Give out business cards appropriately. According to Susan RoAne, author of How to Work a Room, “The exchange of cards should follow a conversation in which rapport has been established.”
  • Use the business cards you get from others to make notes on the back that will trigger your memory later.
  • The best way to get noticed and appreciated at a networking event is to ask good questions and be completely interested in the responses. Questions that begin with what, why, or how will get more information. Suggestions for open-ended questions to begin a conversation include:

    • How long have you been a member of this group?
    • How has your membership in this group helped you?
    • Where are you originally from?
    • What is the best part of your job?
    • What is the most challenging part of your job?

    Almost everyone’s greatest business networking fear is that they won’t remember names and faces. It happens to all of us at one time or another. When you’re face to face with someone you should remember — but absolutely, positively cannot recall — you can either “dance” or admit you don’t know where you remember him or her from.

    Dancing goes like this: “It’s nice to see you again. When did we last see each other? (Hoping this gives you a clue.) Is this a busy time for you? (Maybe this will give another clue.) Ask any other question that could dredge up the memory fix that’s needed. If all else fails, just admit you haven’t a clue where you met. Say you’re bad with face and ask for help remembering. You might be surprised at how many people will laugh and say they have the same problem.

    Lastly, chance encounters can also lead to great relationships, so be open to talking to everyone. You never know what opportunities will be available through a chance encounter.