Networking: Are you asking the right questions?

October 29, 2011

I was almost 19 years old, a business undergrad student at USC, and was at a lunch event with Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s. I was ecstatic thinking to myself: “oh my god, it’s him… I want to know how he did it! What do I say?” I wanted to connect with him so badly but I was at a loss for words because “how did you do it?” was not something I could just walk up to him and ask; it didn’t feel right. In reality, I just wanted his advice on anything he wanted to give it on and I wasn’t sure what to ask to get it. Luckily, I was wearing a very formal skirt suit, panty hose and heels and I caught his eye. He said to me, “why are you dressed like that at school?” I answered, “today is career fair day and I am trying to get a summer job.” He looked at me and said with disgust in his voice, “a job?… ” He continued, “Don’t get a job! Do you live with your family? You don’t have any expenses. You are young. Start a business. Any business. Just do something and grow.”

His words were etched into the tablet of my mind forever. People’s words have tremendous value. Luckily he took the initiative to talk to me. It is very common to admire someone you meet and have an inner burning need to connect with them. Don’t miss an opportunity to connect. Learn how to ask the right questions.

What are the right questions? Here are my tips on how to determine if your questions are effective, valuable and lend themselves to a connection.

Does your question have a specific answer? When you are in a public and social environment, you should not burden your connection with an open-ended question that requires a long drawn out explanation.
No-no: “I want to write a book as well. How did you get your book published?”
Right question: “When you decided to write a book which publishing companies did you initially approach?”
Explanation: The right question in this example has a specific answer. You can obtain a list of publishers you might be able to approach. The question is easy to answer, allowing your connection the opportunity to either end the conversation or open up with more information and ask you about your intentions. This could become a very valuable conversation for you. Avoid how and why questions; the answers are never specific.

Make sure your question is not a violation of the person’s privacy (money, interest rates on someone’s loans, debt, start up costs, etc). These types of questions are not appropriate when you first meet someone. You need to build trust and a personal connection before you should even consider getting into private matters.
No-no: “Are nail salons a profitable business?”
Right question: “What does the manicuring industry’s profit margin range between?”
Explanation:  If you are curious about the profitability of a nail salon, for example, you should ask a general question, allowing your connection to give a vague answer if they wanted to. Although privacy seems like common sense, as a business woman, you would be surprised how many times people have asked me “is your business profitable?”

Have clarity about your intentions. You want to make sure when you are asking questions the connection feels that their answers are useful to you. If you ask questions that appear to be of no value to you, you are wasting the person’s time and no one in the business world respects time-wasters. When you have clear intentions you will be able to ask a series of related questions that will open up conversation on a specific subject. When you are not clear, you will most likely not know what to ask once you get your first question answered and will move into a socially awkward moment.
You have no clear intention because you don’t really know what your plans are, but you just want to chat with the person hoping they could say something that will make you clear about your plans.
You: “Where was your first Kinko’s location?”
Him: “Santa Barbara.”
You: “Oh. Okay. Where do you live now?”
Him: He checks his phone and says, “Sorry I have to take this call” Because he doesn’t want to tell you where he lives, he doesn’t even know you!
Right Question:
You have a clear intention. You want to open a clothing boutique and want information on how to choose a good location.
You: Where was your first Kinko’s location?”
Him: “Santa Barbara.”
You: “At the time what factors did you consider when choosing your location.”
Him: “Proximity to where I was living at the time, rent, size of space.”
You: “Do you still think those are important factors or would you add anything to them now that you’ve had years of experience?”
When you are clear your connection will realize where you are going with your questions and will be able to help you and will feel good that they could be of value to your needs. The bad example in this situation will make your connection feel that you are awkward, unclear and possibly nosy. They won’t know what your intentions are, because you don’t know your own intentions.

Do your homework.
Know your industry.
Be genuinely interested in the inner-workings of the business you are asking about.
Be humble.
Be modest in your approach.
Know what you want to gain out of the conversation.
Be clear about what your needs are.
Be clear on what you want to accomplish… Remember that the only difference between someone who owns a successful advertising agency, for example, and someone who wants to is just a series of steps to get there. People who are clear on what they want to accomplish and people who are accomplished are easy to discuss business matters with; it’s the confused people that create awkward networking moments.
Be clear on what your skills are and how you may be of use in case you need to barter with the person you want to connect with.
Asking the right questions not only gives you answers that are useful, an opportunity to connect with someone, a potentially valuable conversation, but also gives you credibility.

Effective networking can potentially be your life source. Knowing the right people is not enough. You have to know how to build the right connections with those people. Remember what networking is and network consciously.* Need help determining if your questions are the right ones? Email me: samira@bellacures.com.

*Samira’s definition of networking:
We are all an abundant resource on different matters. Our goal in human interaction is to provide our resource to another who needs it. When talking, remember to ask questions that bring out the resource you need in the other person. They don’t know how to help you. You know. Make what you need clear. Make what your resource is clear to others as well… so you can give others an opportunity to use your resources.

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