By Iris Ann Cooper

Entrepreneur’s are always “on”.  Every encounter, whether in person, in a group, online, or on the phone, presents an opportunity to develop a new relationship or connect with a previous one.  Every person is a potential customer or endorsement for your product or service.  Some say the first impression could be lasting, so make the most of it.  The holidays offer an ideal time to brush up on your networking skills at parties and receptions.  Here are some tips I learned early in my banking career that have helped me stay on a first name basis with  my contacts, in spite of time and distance constraints:

Be Approachable. Practice smiling.  A smile can invite others to smile back and opens the door to a bouquet of new information and relationships.  Keep  breath mints, not chewing gum, in your pocket in case you had onions for lunch.  Be positive and keep the conversation light. 

Be Attractive.  When unsure of what to wear, it’s always better to step- up your outfit rather than down.  Men:  keep a tie in your car and a neutral sport coat in case the meeting is traditional business.  Ladies: – also keep a jacket and some modest jewelry in the car to upgrade a business casual outfit to slightly dressy.  Less is more!  Leave the heavy perfume or after -shave in the glove compartment; this is a sure way to alienate others.  No wrinkles allowed and shine welcomed on all shoes.

Be Relevant. Read something interesting before entering the room.  USA Today and Entrepreneur are great resources for current national news that can season bland conversation, and let others know that you are savoring life.

Be Polite. RSVP should be taken seriously.  Events have guest lists and menus based upon a number of expected attendees. Be on time and address the host first.  As you enter the room, survey the room to create a quick networking plan.   Then move about the room, mingling with familiar and unfamiliar faces.    Turn the cell phone on vibrate or off.  Also don’t show up with uninvited guests (and definitely not children) without permission, unless you don’t want to be invited again.  Don’t be the last person to leave either; let the host be there when the lights go out.     Follow up with a personal card or email.  The host will appreciate knowing you enjoyed the event.

Be Brief. Your elevator speech should be no more than1 minute when in a networking setting.  The remaining time should be left to exchange business cards, and not to pass out flyers or brochures about your company. Have your business cards in an easy pocket for quick exchange.

Be Strategic. Circulate as much as possible and be sure to connect with those people that are important to your business.  It is okay to end a conversation with “I have really enjoyed talking to you and hope to see you again soon” and move toward someone else.

Be Prepared.  If the event is a celebration, an appropriate card or gift is certainly in order.    Know more than the name of the host; be aware of his/her background, position, and purpose for the event.

Be Discreet.  If you leave early, walk backward slowly to the door.  This way no one will really know when you left because your face was always in view. 

Be Proactive.  Follow up within 24 hours with those who you made commitments to contact.  It’s important to demonstrate an ability to do what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it, also known as reliability.

Be reciprocal.  Add the host to your contact list and invite them to future events that you sponsor.  Relationships must be nurtured for sustainability.