I was talking with a friend at a business networking event when a man came plowing through the crowd doling out business cards as if he were handing out candy on Halloween. After the most cursory of introductions, he put a card in each of our hands, smiled, and moved on to interrupt the next group of people.
“What a waste of ink, paper, and time.” I said to Jim.
“But I wonder…,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a numbers game. Maybe if he passes out a thousand business cards, he gets…”
I took a sip of my coffee. “Could be … but it’s no different than emailing ten-million people hoping to get a hundred responses. It’s bottom-feeding.”
Jim challenged me. “So you’re here at the same networking event with a stack of cards in your pocket. How do you do it differently?”
“First of all…,” I smiled and paused, “I’ll soon be talking to someone other than you.”
Jim laughed. “I guess it makes sense to network with people who are actually prospects!”
“Yep, but I have a rule: I never give out a business card unless someone asks for it.”
Jim twisted his chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Okay … I’ll bite. Why?”
“Because an exchange of business cards is a transaction and a transaction is the result of a relationship. Real professionals aren’t looking for a hook-up; they talk to people so they can qualify prospects and demonstrate value. If I meet that woman over there and she’s in the same business as me, I might talk shop with her for a minute and get to know her as a colleague, but I don’t need her card and she doesn’t need mine. See that guy in the suit over there who’s been talking about himself for the past twenty minutes to that woman who’s too polite to break away? I don’t want his card, either. I’ll walk around, read some nametags, shake some hands, and try to find some people whose skills and interests dovetail with mine. It’s ‘networking,’ not list-building.”
“Okay,” said Jim, “But when do you get down to exchanging business cards?”
“When engaged in a business introduction, my goal is to convince the right people that they want to talk again and take the relationship to the next level. If I do that successfully, they’ll ask for my card. I might ask for theirs if I’m particularly enthusiastic about what they have to offer, but not until they’ve failed to ask for mine. If you know what you do and who you do it successfully for, it isn’t that hard to connect your story to someone else’s story fairly quickly. Talk about what you do relative to what they want to accomplish. If you have some magic to contribute to their story, they’ll ask for your card—and if not, it’s just as well.”
Jim smiled. “Makes sense,” he said.
“Two more things about cards: When someone asks for your card, then ask for theirs and take the initiative to follow up. The ‘connection buzz’ fades fast. Call them back the next day if you can because they might get distracted.”
“And the other thing?”
“Most people’s cards might just as well be confetti. Hire a professional designer and put together the most rockin’ business card you possibly can. Add gold foil and embossing and spot varnish if you can do it tastefully. Print your cards on thick paper and pay real money for high-end printing. Your card should project your high standards and make anyone who receives it feel like they’ve been given a gift—like you’ve invested in the relationship. And having invested in your cards, you’ll be less inclined to scatter them in front of a fan like Mr. Halloween Candy who just blasted through here trying to convince himself that he’s an effective networker. He’s going to get zero leads today and conclude there are no fish to be caught in this pond; we’ll never see him again.” I put his card down on the bus tray with the empty coffee cups and pastry crusts.
I pulled out my business card to show Jim.
He studied it for a moment. “That’s the nicest business card I’ve ever seen. Do you think you could help me…?”
“Come on, Jim. Consummate the relationship.”
“You mean you’re really gonna make me…?”
“Yep.” I began to laugh.
Jim faced me and bowed formally. “Dave, May I have your card?”
“With pleasure,” I replied. “Give me one of yours and I’ll call you tomorrow.”