Sometimes, the most fruitful networking opportunities pop up in unexpected places.
That was the case for Josh Hinds, owner of Tuscaloosa's GetMotivation.com and author of "Why Perfect Timing is a Myth."
The professional trainer and coach was at a gas station when he noticed that a woman who was about to put gas in her car was wearing dressy clothes.
Deducing the woman was going somewhere important and wouldn't want to smell like gas or possibly stain her outfit, Hinds offered to pump the gas for her, and she accepted.
"She ended up asking me what I do, and then ended up being a customer who referred me to a lot of other customers," Hinds said. "For me, networking is a lifestyle."
To become a great networker, experts say executives should learn to seize those everyday opportunities and not view networking as a transactional process.
Networking involves truly getting to know another person, not just giving that person a sales pitch and a business card, experts said. It entails skills such as being a good listener, picking up on another person's emotional cues, having empathy for other people and being confident enough to talk to strangers.
A little thoughtfulness – taking the time to write a thank you note, for example – and volunteering for nonprofits or business groups also go a long way toward relationship building.
"Instead of trying to get your business card into another person's hand, ask for that person's card," Hinds said. "Build rapport in a low-key way. The other person will remember you better if you're focused on them."
Chris Hussar, investment consultant at Birmingham's Kelley & Mullis Wealth Management, says one of his best tips involves branching out from existing clients.
He suggests holding a regular business happy hour and inviting four to six top clients and asking them to bring a top relationship of theirs.
Ed Batista, instructor and leadership coach at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, said the key to great networking is to keep it personal.
"If we view networking as a transactional process, we get suboptimal results," Batista said. "If we do it in a more human way, we can create potentially meaningful relationships in any circumstance. It doesn't have to be at a networking event."
Batista thinks people with problems networking face two basic issues. They're either anxious about reaching out to potential contacts and prospects, or they're confident about making connections but are sometimes too blunt or aggressive, which "turns other people off," he said.
For the anxious group, Batista suggests that acknowledging anxiety is the first step to overcoming it.
Next, those people can reach out to a relatively nonthreatening person or group to increase the odds of getting a positive response – such as a graduate student approaching alumni of his school.
People nervous about networking also might identify someone just outside their circle of friends – the colleague of a friend, for example – and contact that person.
Still, even confident people face some hurdles when it comes to networking.
Networking guru Ivan Misner asked the 900 attendees at an event he did in London a few years ago to raise their hands if they hoped to sell something that day, and a sea of hands went up.
When he asked how many people wanted to buy something, no hands were lifted.
"That is what I call the networking disconnect. People show up to events wanting to sell, not to buy, but that's not networking; that's direct selling," said Misner, founder and chairman of Business Network International in Upland, Calif., and author of 16 books, including "Networking Like a Pro."
"People want to do business with people they know and trust," Misner said. "Trust is the cornerstone of the referral process, which flies in the face of what most people think networking is."
Confident networkers, on the other hand, might need to pay more attention to other people – to work on making a genuine, authentic connection with another person.
"Introverts can be extremely good at networking; they're really good at listening," Misner said. "Extroverts are great at talking to somebody; the problem is they ... go on and on, and never ask about the other person. The extrovert walks away telling himself, 'I'm good at this.' But the other person is telling himself, 'He thinks highly of himself, but he never asked me anything.'"
Ultimately, the goal of networking is building relationships with other people at an emotional level to help build a business. It involves meeting and interacting with people you can know and trust, and vice versa.
"People always say it's not what you know, but who you know," Misner said. "But I think it's not what you know or who you know, but how well you know people."
Paula Moore wrote this story for American City Business Journals.