This was originally published on Lawyerist. Someone recently asked for a simple CRM for referrals so I pulled it out of the archives in order to share it here.

Networking is as simple as getting out and doing things with people, but as you become more active it can be hard to keep track of your growing network. You could use CRM software, but in a CRM contacts are nearly always categorized as leads, prospects, and “wins.” This works great for selling things, but not so well for managing actual relationships. Also, it can be pretty expensive.

All you really need is a simple system that helps you keep track of who you know and prompts you to connect or follow up. I call my system a networking tickler, and here’s how it works.

Building Your Networking Tickler

You can make virtually anything that lets you organize contacts or notes into groups into a networking tickler. Evernote works great because of its built-in business card scanner, but so do OneNote, manila folders, your contacts app, a small notebook, a box of index cards, etc.

All you need is an inbox and six folders/tags/groups/notebooks/buckets:

  1. Inbox
  2. Initiate/Re-Engage
  3. Engaged
  4. Follow Up
  5. Disengaged
  6. Other

(What you name your buckets is not all that important as long as you know what they mean.)

Here is what my networking tickler looks like in Evernote:

(For Evernote users, the reason I name folders “People.Engaged” instead of just “Engaged” is because it is easier to find all the people notebooks when using the search field. As soon as I type the first few letters of “People,” all the notebooks pop up.)

What Goes into Your Buckets

Inbox. This is where you dump all the business cards, cocktail napkins, names, notes, and anything else you may collect that represents someone you want to meet or follow up with. You can just use a regular inbox for this. I use my general-purpose inbox notebook in Evernote, but you could also use the inbox on your desk, in Dropbox, or whatever works for you. You don’t need a special new inbox unless it makes you more effective.

Once a week, process your inbox and sort all your contacts into your other buckets. Don’t do anything else with them right now. Just decide where they belong.

For example:

  • The note about your best referral source’s favorite sport gets added to the note you already have for them, which you can move to Follow-Up so you can get tickets for the next game.
  • The business card from that annoying guy who just passed a stack of his cards around the room probably goes in the trash.
  • A cocktail napkin that says “find an estate planning lawyer in Springfield” goes into Initiate/Re-Engage.
  • The new business card you got from your best friend who just started a new job probably goes in Engaged. If you already have a note for them, just add the new information.
  • Your spouse’s shoe size that you finally remembered to write down so you can buy new boots for their birthday gets added to the note you keep for them in Other.

Initiate/Re-Engage. This bucket functions like a to-do list. Your goal is to move people from this bucket to the Engaged bucket by doing something with them. This could be coffee, a walk, a backyard barbecue, sending a note—whatever suits the nature of your relationship with that person.

Engaged. This bucket contains the people you are actively engaged with, either because you have an appointment on the calendar or you see them all the time. Good job!

Every once in a while, go through your Engaged bucket and make sure you really are engaged with everyone in it. If you aren’t, move them to the appropriate folder.

Follow Up. This bucket also functions like a to-do list, for thank-you notes, reminders, tickets to shows or sporting events, etc. Follow up is an essential part of networking, and this bucket will help you make it happen.

Using Your Networking Tickler

Plan to “do networking” on a regular schedule. Block off an hour on your calendar every week when you can sit down and process the business cards in your inbox, contact people in your Initiate/Re-Engage folder, send follow-ups, and otherwise move your networking efforts along.

Set a reasonable goal for your networking activity every week. (You can decide what counts as networking, but at a minimum it should probably involve, you know, people.)

Don’t Try to Automate Relationships

The point of a networking tickler is to help you keep track of your real relationships, not to automate superficial relationships.

If you want to have a strong referral network, stay away from automated solutions. Those “just-checking-in” emails you can automatically send at regular intervals from your CRM software are phoney and it’s obvious you didn’t put any effort into sending them. It only takes a little more effort to be genuine, and it will pay off in spades.

Note from 2020

This is a simple system you can implement in almost anything. You don’t need new software. In fact, your networking tickler will be more effective if you see it every day, so try adding it to something you already use all the time.

Software is not necessarily the best way to implement your networking tickler. Networking is absolutely not better when it’s automated. And lots of the things you will want to drop into your inbox and follow-up folders won’t be digital. My favorite networking tickler is a Moleskine pocket portfolio. It’s just the right size for collecting business cards, index cards, and cocktail napkins, and fits in your pocket or bag so you’ll always have it with you.

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