Expert shares advice on building contacts, branding

Most professionals use “networking” to advertise their business, get valuable information and knowledge, and gain new customers, mentors or mentees, said a local networking expert.

Often, networking sessions occur during conferences or events where information is shared by those who are also there to learn, according to Chi Chi Okezie, owner of SIMPLEnetworking, LLC.

A professional may do what he or she feels necessary to network at the function, even though several days may pass without any returned calls, said Okezie, who was the guest speaker during the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce’s “Fulton & Kozak, CPA Business to Business Luncheon,” on Tuesday at the Community Impact Center of Higher Living Christian Church in Jonesboro.

The topic of the event was: “How to Get a Return on Your Networking Investment.”

“Networking should be fun and it should also be lifestyle,” said Okezie. “You paid your dues ... and don’t get any response ... You realize something is not working.”

The message was, however, don’t be discouraged. Okezie said the first step to networking success is to follow up with contacts. A person should schedule one-on-one meetings with their connections about three days after the networking session. This meeting will allow you to know the person better and ask questions. “A meeting is more strategic and you are getting a lot of things done,” she explained.

After the meeting, she said, a relationship should start developing.

Professionals should look for their connections’ Facebook or LinkedIn web pages to learn more about their background, she said. That is a good way to learn what schools or universities they attended, and the organizations that are important to them.

People must identify the purpose of the connection, said Okezie. Connections may be potential customers or even personal mentors, she said. “If you don’t identify who the person is, in your network, it will be difficult,” she advised.

“Networking is successful because you have to be consistent at it,” she continued.

Okezie said professionals should have an efficient networking plan before walking the beat. The plan includes four key factors: the follow up, the relationship, the personal brand and the actual network, she said.

Professionals must personally brand themselves before a networking community, said Okezie. This includes branding experiences, talents and skills. Others may do business with a person because of her personality or professionalism, she added.

Personal branding must be meaningful, clear and resonating to the connection, she told the audience. “Creating a personal brand is key to getting a good return on your networking investment,” said Okezie. A brand that is consistent and specific to a niche is more likely to be successful.

She said building an actual network that includes about 15 top contacts is the final ingredient. “Developing a network is key to getting a good return on your networking investment.”

To start building contacts, she said, the mission and goal for obtaining these connections must be understood. A person should also know their networking skills and weaknesses before stepping onto center stage.

Individuals chosen for your network should be diverse in various areas, including race, ethnicity, sex, age and talents, Okezie stressed. She said she encourages people to attend a networking session with a colleague or friend. “If you take a friend, you may stay there a little longer,” she added.

Angie Gunnels, account manager for Southern Crescent Personnel, and one of the luncheon attendees, said she enjoyed listening to Okezie. Her speech was entertaining and informative, Gunnels said. “Anybody could understand it.”