The 3 Stages of a Networking Relationship

three-stages-smI think the reason most people struggle with networking is because they don’t know that these relationships, IF HANDLED CORRECTLY, move through 3 distinct STAGES. These stages are a progression, with the relationship growing deeper in each stage. Understanding this progression is absolutely KEY to being successful in building your network.

The three stages are:

  1. Awareness
  2. Trust
  3. Contribution

AWARENESS

The vast majority of the networking done today focuses ONLY on this first stage. Probably because it is the easiest to achieve. In this stage you are simply making people AWARE that you exist and what you (and your company) do. This is why people regurgitate their elevator pitch or unique selling proposition (USP) and hand out business cards at events. This is why people have LinkedIn profiles and send connection requests.  They are making people aware that they are Person A that works for company X and offers service or product Y and can be reached at email or phone number Z if you possibly need any Y’s.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this stage. It is the first step to a deeper relationship. And assuming you weren’t rude or too pushy or committed any other common networking faux pas when you met this person, then you’ve established a good jump-of point for further stages.

The unfortunate fact is that all-too-many people just do this one stage over and over and over again, expecting something to happen. And sure, once in a while you get a new customer or find a good referral partner, but these wins are haphazard and unpredictable. If you want to run off random luck, maybe some smart entrepreneur will invent a networking scratch-off lotto card that gives you a 1-50 chance of winning new connections. That would save you the 3 hours you were going to spend at an event.

TRUST

OK, so you’ve made someone aware that you exist. Great. Now you can at least reach out again and it won’t be a complete cold-call. But there’s still a lot of work to do. The next major milestone you want to achieve with them is developing trust in you.

Of course, if you think about this for a moment you will realize that “trust” actually has different facets to it. As a side note here, if you’d like to really learn about trust and its exact affects on relationships, I highly recommend Steven Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust. It explains trust in ALL its individual parts – to a degree I’m quite sure you’ve never even considered. I’m not going to go into the subject to that level of detail, but there are a few major aspects I think are important to cover here.

In what ways do you think a person would need to trust you in order for them to feel comfortable sending a friend of theirs to you as a referral or introduction? Well at a minimum, they would need to have trust that you are reasonably COMPETENT at your job (that would go for the service quality your company offers too) and as well trust that you are an ETHICAL / HONORABLE person. I mean, if they send their friend to you and you are not competent or your treat this person in an unethical way, then they look bad to their friend for having suggested you. In fact, they will LOSE their friend’s trust to some degree if they give a bad recommendation.

The truth is that after initially meeting with and subsequently learning more about you, they will only have a sense of whether they can trust you. It’s a tenuous sort of trust that has not been proven yet – a benefit of the doubt. But once they have personally dealt with you either by using your services, getting industry advice from you that they found helpful or referring a contact of theirs and getting good feedback, then you have a SOLID connection of trust. You have established credibility as a resource that can be utilized when they or someone they know needs it.

It’s only at this point that you should consider that you have this person “in your network”. Before this (at the Awareness stage), you merely have a name, a face, and their contact info.

It’s important to note that to fully achieve this stage in a relationship, it should be a two-way street. You need to establish that your contact is worthy of trust as well. And while there may be a short time where only one party has established trust, you will find that a lack of parity on this will not last. It will need to either balance or eventually fall apart.

CONTRIBUTION

The highest relationship stage in this progression is the level of “contribution”. At this stage you have a contact that not only trusts you, but is INTERESTED IN YOUR SUCCESS. You’ve established a professional friendship.

By way of comparison, at the level of “trust” you have someone who is willing to send people your way when the opportunity presents itself, whereas at the level of “contribution” they have a desire to send people your way because they want to see you succeed and do well. In other words, when building your network, the TRUST STAGE establishes the connecting wires that lay between you and each of your contacts, but the CONTRIBUTION STAGE infuses those wires with the electrical energy that turns your network into something that is aliveexpanding and self-perpetuating.

So how do you move a relationship up into his stage exactly? One word: GENEROSITY.

Like trust, the level of contribution is a two-way street.  You need to GIVE first.  You need to ADD VALUE to the lives of the people you know. And I don’t just mean professionally. I mean in ANY way that is needed. Be genuinely interested in them, find out what they need and see if you can help.

But the really important secret to this is: do it GENUINELY, with the mindset of just wanting to make that person happier as a result.  Do it with no requirement, condition or expectation of getting help in return. The funny thing is that if you approach it in this way, it WILL come back to you somehow; maybe not from that person and maybe not for a long time, but the old saying “what goes around comes around” really holds true here. Call it networking karma if you wish.

There’s a lot more I could cover about the ins and outs of HOW to practice generosity in networking, and I’ll plan to cover that in a future post. For now, I think the above should be enough to get you started in the right direction.

How We’ve Implemented This

In the LincSphere mobile app, we have a few features that help our users incorporate this mindset into their networking habits.

When a contact is entered, there is a field called “Connection Level” where they can indicate the current stage of that relationship, but we use more common words to describe the stages (because, unfortunately, not everybody is going to read this blog post). For AWARENESS we use “Acquaintance”, for TRUST we use “Trusted Contact” and for CONTRIBUTION we use “Friend”.

We also provide a neat little pie chart so you can see how all your contacts break down by relationship stage (a.k.a. “Connection Level”).

Shades of Grey

As a parting word on this, I will point out that while these three stages look really clean on paper (or on-screen in this case), the truth is that there aren’t really clear division lines between them.  They bleed into each other with shades of grey between them.  Not only that, but the SPEED with which you move from one stage to the other can wildly vary. Sometimes when you meet someone at an event it is a professional “love at first sight” and other times it takes months or years to move through the stages.

The important thing is to understand this basic progression and how it applies to each of your contacts, so you can really build a network worth having.