Would it surprise you if I were to admit, despite my unshakable belief in the practice of reciprocal networking, that one of my growing pet peeves is when people end a networking conversation by saying “So Matt, how can I help YOU?”

Sounds crazy, I know.  All the experts, all the books, all the networking blogs out there tout this question as pretty much the “be all and end all” of networking — and as one of the magic bullets people should use to improve their success rate in building relationships.  But I’ve got to be honest.  I think this line has become so over-used out there (is there a factory pumping people out, trained to say this?) that it’s lost a lot of its power and effectiveness.  It’s abrupt.  It’s predictable.  And to my ears, it often sounds contrived, as if the person you’ve been chatting with suddenly remembers to get back on script and realizes “Oh crap!  I forgot I’m supposed to always say this line at the end!”

So don’t get me wrong, I absolutely prefer people who are at least TRYING to act reciprocally in this fashion versus those folks who are “takers” at heart and don’t show any interest in a mutually-beneficial relationship.  But I think there’s a better way to go about it.  What if instead of ASKING a person in general how you can help them, as if you have no possible conception of what they do or what their needs might be, you were to actually SUGGEST some possible ways you might be able to support their efforts?  Is that such a ridiculous notion?  In most cases, after all, you can probably come up with a few useful ideas simply by doing some homework on the person you’re meeting (and/or their company) in advance in the meeting, as well as by listening carefully to what they tell you during the conversation itself.

For example, let’s say I’m just winding down a coffee meeting with a recruiter here in town I haven’t met before.  As the meeting starts to draw to a close, I suppose I could end the conversation with the standard “So Shelly, how can I help you?” and see what they say.  In most cases, though, I’d be much more inclined to say something like:

So Shelly, now that I’ve got a much better understanding of the type of recruiting you practice, is there any way I can lend a hand to your efforts?  Is there a certain type of candidate I can send over that might be a great fit for some of your placements?  Or would you have any interest in having me run some of your job openings out in my monthly newsletter, as a professional courtesy?  Or at the very least, should we perhaps get hooked up on LinkedIn, just in case I might know somebody at a company you’re seeking to do business with?  I’ve got a pretty large network on that site and would be more than happy to make any relevant introductions on your behalf that might be beneficial…”

Or let’s say you’re a job hunter, wrapping up an informational meeting with a VP of Marketing in the biotech industry.  You might close the conversation with a statement along the lines of:

Quigley, it’s been great chatting with you.  Thanks for your time.  And since I’ve been out talking to a ton of people lately on the networking circuit, definitely let me know if there are any certain types of people you want me to keep my eyes open for on your behalf, either in terms of job candidates or potential customers.  Also, did you want a copy of that list of 110 biotechnology firms I showed you earlier?  Might be something to just keep on file, in case you ever need it or wanted to explore partnerships with some of those other firms…

Feel free (as always) to tell me I’m crazy here, but to me, this type of approach is MUCH more likely to send a signal to the person across the table that you’ve listened carefully to what they’ve told you, sincerely want to help them, and are actively thinking about ways you can add value to the relationship.  And even if they don’t happen to need any of the help you’re proposing, right at the moment, I think the right message will still be sent and perhaps some other useful collaboration will come to mind, down the road.

So again, don’t get me wrong.  I adore the spirit of “How can I help you?” and know that the crowd that uses this line tends to have good intentions at heart.  I just personally believe there’s a better way to approach this aspect of networking.  With a little preparation and thoughtfulness, you’ll be able to evolve past a quasi-forced statement about reciprocity and propose some more specific win/win ideas that will deepen the new relationship you’re trying to build!