Each time you attend a meeting, conference, convention, or even an after-hours cocktail party, you should be prepared to network. Before you walk out the door, get into your car, and start driving to the event, you should know what it is you want to accomplish. Your job is to meet — and make a connection with — the “right” people.

And, once you’ve done that, to keep in touch with them. It’s more beneficial for you to learn all about what the other person does — to determine whether or not he’s a prospect for you — than to talk about yourself. So you’re going to ask a lot of questions and gather a lot of information. One thing you are NOT going to do is try to sell anybody anything.

To break the ice, ask questions like these:

* “Are you a member of [organization’s name]? How long have you been involved?”

* “How did you hear about this organization/this meeting?”

* “What do you know about the speaker? Have you ever heard her speak before?” As the conversation heats up, ask questions like these: * “What type of work do you do? What is your position/title with the company?”

* “How did you get into this line of work? How long have you been doing it?”

* “What do you like most about your job?” Then dig a little deeper with questions like these:

* “What are the three greatest challenges you see in your business/industry?”

* “How is technology changing the way your company/industry does business? What trends do you see taking place?”

* “How would I know if someone is a good prospect for you?” (This is a great networking question!) Listen to what the person says. Then ask further questions based upon his answers. Before you know it, you’ll be engrossed in a stimulating conversation. If you discover a situation that could become a business opportunity, don’t say, “We’ve got a product that does just what you’re looking for.” Don’t even ask, “Could we set up an appointment to discuss this further? Do you have your calendar with you?”

Instead, make a mental note to yourself to call the person a few days later. When the conversation has ended, step away and jot down your notes on his business card. When you get back to your office, schedule all of your follow-up calls immediately so you don’t forget to do it. Remember, it doesn’t matter how many people you meet, how many business cards you collect, how many leads or referrals you’re given, or how many opportunities come your way — if you don’t follow up, the entire networking process falls apart.

Editorial note: If you’re tired of calling the same people over and over again- and don’t have enough prospects – you probably need to improve your networking skills. Jeffrey J. Mayer’s “Creating Opportunities by Networking” eBook teaches you how to become an expert networker. He also has a very informative free e-letter called “Succeeding in Business”.