How Not to Be a Networking Leech: Tips for Seeking Professional Advice

Businesspeople generally think of networking as a mutually beneficial meeting for both parties. But that’s not usually what it is. Far more often, it is one person asking the other for a favor.

I have been a management consultant, business owner and speaker for more than 12 years. Before that, I was a business executive and a trial lawyer. Along the way I have received invaluable advice from others — guidance that educated me and helped me make important professional connections. Because this advice has been such a great help to me, I believe in helping others in the same way, without expecting anything in return.

During the course of a year I receive numerous requests from people I do not know, asking me to network. I respond by meeting at least once a week with someone who is seeking advice on their careers or businesses, either in person or on the phone.

In the course of these meetings, I have come across people who fall under the category of what I call “networking parasites.” These are people who fail to understand that I am giving them information that my regular clients pay for.

I am not alone in this. Doctors, accountants, plumbers, computer experts, lawyers and financial advisers all must deal with people shamelessly asking for meetings, free advice or free services or treatment — without remotely acknowledging that these professionals make their living selling that time and expertise. Over the years, dozens of experts have told me about being accosted at parties and on airplanes by strangers who ask for a free consultation under the guise of “conversation.”

Surely you do not want to be the kind of person who antagonizes professionals in this way. So here are some tips to help you avoid becoming a networking parasite.

Make the meeting convenient. Ask for time frames that would work well, and meet at a place that is convenient for them, even if you have to drive across town. If they leave it up to you, give them three options and let them pick the one that works best.

Recently, someone asked me to meet him for coffee, and I told him I could make “just about anything work” on a particular Friday. He responded with, “I like to start my day early, so let’s meet for coffee near your office at 6 a.m.” I wrote back that 6 a.m. was too early, to which he responded, “O.K. Let’s make it 7 a.m.” If you want me to pull out all the stops for you, this is not the way to start.

Buy their coffee or meal. Insist on doing this as a sign of how valuable you consider their time and advice. If you are on a tight budget, ask them to coffee, but insist on paying for it by saying, “This is a huge favor to me, so please let me do this small thing for you.” If you can manage it financially, try to meet for drinks or dinner after work. You will get more of their attention if you are not sandwiched in during their day.

Go with a prepared list of questions. People whose advice is worth seeking are busy. They don’t have time to sit through your stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Figure out in advance what information you want from them, and send your list ahead of time so they can be thinking about the answers.

Don’t argue about their advice or point out why it wouldn’t work for you. You can ask for clarification by finding out how they would handle a particular concern you have, but don’t go beyond that. You get to decide whether or not to use their advice.

Don’t ask for intellectual property or materials. I am amazed at the number of people who ask for copies of my PowerPoint presentations and seminar materials to use in their organization, with no understanding that these materials are original and copyrighted — and how I make my living.

Never ask for any written follow-up. It is your job to take good notes during your meeting, not their job to send you bullet points after the meeting. No one should get homework after agreeing to help someone.

Spend time at the end of the meeting finding out what you can do for them. Do you know anyone who could use their services, or who would make a good professional connection? At the very least, consider writing a recommendation for them on LinkedIn.

Always thank them more than once. Thank them at the end of the meeting, expressing your appreciation for the time they have spent with you. Follow up with a handwritten note — not an email or a text.

Do not refer others to the same expert. I just helped someone (whom I didn’t know well) polish her résumé and craft her job-search pitch. Then I worked my contacts and helped her land a great new job. The result? I received emails from two strangers, asking me to “network” with them, because the person I had just helped suggested they contact me to do the same for them.

Ask an expert for free help only once. If the help someone offered you was so valuable that you would like them to provide it again, then pay for it the next time.

As you ask people for help, always consider how you in turn can help others. At the end of each workweek make a list of the people you have helped, and the favors you have done for which you received nothing in return. If your list is empty week after week, then you really are a networking parasite.


This piece was originally published by the NY Times.

Featured image by Brenna Thummler.

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