By Darren Palestine


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Even the basic handshake has changed.  Scanning the room; trying to identify the individual you are trying to meet, through a mask in a sea of masks, generally becomes a guessing game.  When you finally lock eyes with the individual on the other side; you extend your hand out- open faced- only to be met with a closed fist and the awkward “who switches” silent discussion ensues.  When your hands finally come to an agreement of where to meet after some laughter, you can now begin what is the new normal — an overly distanced discussion where raising your voice is needed to make sure your counterpart can hear you amongst the other overly raised voices.

Your other option is to put on the suit that has been collecting dust in the closet; find the right camera location (we’ve all been there scanning our rooms for flaws or purposely setting up some type of accomplishment shrine — perhaps including your favorite sports team, perhaps a few books that haven’t been read).  You log on - some black boxes with names, some clearly looking at a different monitor, some have tried to show their differentiation through a special background.  You enter your own version of the Brady Bunch opening.  The doorbell rings; the dog barks, which wakes the baby; the baby cries can now be heard by all your new somewhat uninterested friends.  You start the meeting – are you muted, are you unmuted, is your video on, does this angle make me look odd?  Are people talking over each other?

Welcome to Networking in 2021.  A mix of awkwardness and distraction.  For an emerging young professional, the networking landscape and traditional conference or meeting structure quickly came to a halt in 2020.  While many organizations, including SFNet, are finally getting in-person networking on the calendars; we still have a road ahead of social distancing, an increase in digital versus in-person, and other COVID related changes and challenges. 

For many young professionals, face-to-face meetings have always been a critical part of business development and, for many lenders and service providers, a key focus of customer interactions.  While many have tried to adapt to this new normal, many more are left behind and unable to hit either personal or company driven goals.  The current landscape, while challenging, can also present an opportunity to find new ways to develop business or maintain existing relationships. 

Take the time to self-organize.  One of the most critical mistakes a young professional made prior to the pandemic was the classic over-networking.  The post conference stack of business cards higher than the computer monitor however no meaningful interactions as a result.  Company name, first and last name, email address and phone number; but no direct notes on how this person could be a valuable partner.  The over-networking problem is a result of not maintaining organization while networking; most of us have been there when attending back-to-back events or the dreaded “road show” when the Marriot Courtyard Inn becomes your home away from home.  By not having as many events to attend, we have been given a perfect opportunity to go back and clean up contacts and organize your contacts in a way that will create much better future interactions.  Use technology and a CRM and take time to organize your contacts including information that would help classify contacts by what they do.  If your CRM allows, make sure to include the type of contact (lender, service provider, etc.)  Also, make sure to indicate how you met your contact as that can often lead to a better conversation for a follow up later on in the follow up stage.  Contact management and organization is just as important as developing new contacts.  Self-organization to set specific times to follow up is also key — make sure to have a plan on your relationship development.  Set specific times to develop new contacts (through networking or self-generated research), reach out to old contacts, organize your contacts, and create a pathway to accomplish networking goals. 

Embrace Technology.  While Zoom, Teams, and other avenues — including digital conferences, have become mainstream, these services shouldn’t be viewed as a challenge, rather as an area that young professionals should be able to take advantage of.  By not having to be on the road, traveling from client to client, you can create a much more efficient work environment.  Additionally, utilizing the technology at our disposal can allow you to stand out from the crowd.  For example, rather than setup a conference call with a prospective client, do a Zoom call.  While many are still not comfortable to meet in person, you do gain a level of comfort being “seeing” someone on the screen across from you.  This same approach can apply to other technology-based areas such as call scheduling and digital presentations.

Re-engage in Person When Appropriate.  As we can see from the increases in travel, events, and other public interactions, there appears to be a pent-up demand for in-person networking.  As we transition from online meetings to hybrid and then hopefully to in-person, I expect there to be a new invigorated desire to physically interact and meet.  Many of us have been jaded by the years and years of conferences however these attitudes should change after this simple setup was taken away from us.  Target specific conferences and don’t overdo it — there is no sense in going from conference to conference without having time to use the organization techniques described earlier — fostering the relationship is more important than developing the initial contact. 

The Other Side Matters.  I am sure we all have those people who call once a month on the same day in search of business. This approach is not only ineffective, it’s actually harmful to your messaging.  Taking a few minutes to research how you can benefit the party you are reaching out to and trying to engage with something to offer, not just to ask for something.  Service providers are uniquely challenged in this respect as it’s sometimes an effort on a true sale however there are still ways to create messaging to appear that you have researched your audience.  A quick five-minute self-research exercise can pay huge dividends — using what you learned about the company you are trying to “sell” can often times open the door to a more friendly conversation.  Using the tools of contact organization previously discussed are also key — reaching out to someone whose card you collected at an event with some information of how you met and some discussion points, will lead to much higher returns on your efforts.

Strategize Ideas and Implementation.  Have a networking strategy.  Identify your target groups, events, and what you hope to accomplish.  Identify potential partners, targets of value, and other synergistic opportunities and organize how you will approach them. Implement a plan of action; how to not only setup an initial meeting, but how to capitalize on the opportunity afterwards.  With fewer opportunities and in-person networking just getting back into the fold, each moment spent networking should be viewed as important.

The pandemic, while challenging, has certainly created opportunity for the individuals willing to go outside the box.  Using our experiences gained during the pandemic, such as revisiting and organizing contacts, and technology uses, should be continued to be build on moving forward.   At Commercial Finance Partners, we strategize our approach to relationship development using the tools above.  While there is no universal strategy that works for all, there are fundamental helpful tools individuals and organizations can use that can only benefit young professional networking efforts.  Networking in 2021 and beyond does not have to be a daunting challenge, rather an avenue that young professionals can embrace and be successful in the new normal we face into the future. 


About the Author

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Darren Palestine is the managing partner of Commercial Finance Partners, a Florida-based direct lender and loan consulting firm.  Prior to joining Commercial Finance Partners in 2016, Darren was previously the director of sales for Crossroads Financial, a nationwide asset-based lender focused on inventory and trade financing, from 2010-2016.  Commercial Finance Partners focuses on small business funding solutions, utilizing the company balance sheet, while also integrating outside capital sources if necessary to facilitate a funding.  Commercial Finance Partners focuses on accounts receivable, inventory, and equipment financing; offering both credit lines and term products to its customers.  Commercial Finance Partners is also an active SBA loan packager, with over $77 million of loans funded through SBA backed lending institutions in 2018.  Darren attended the University of Florida, earning a master in international business in 2009.