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'Tis The Season To Make New Contacts

And you can do this best at a Christmas Party with a drink, a smile and a handshake. With the holidays upon us, the most natural thing in the world, even for the most intrepid entrepreneur, is to kick back, slow down, forget about the business for a while and celebrate the joys of the season. True, there is no better time in the year to do this than during the three weeks from December 15th till after New Year's Day. And while family and friends do deserve your time and attention, your business does not deserve to be left out in the cold. The good news? You can do both this holiday season-socialize and do business.

This does not mean that you should be catching up on paperwork or starting major projects. The art of business resides in fostering relationships, making connections, and building networks. And you can do this best with a drink, a smile and a handshake, instead of a pen, a phone and a computer screen. What's more, since the holidays present prime partying opportunities, it's important to remember that the people you encounter can either be prospective customers or strategic partners or even future employees who play an integral role in your organization. The possibilities are limitless. Which only means that if you hit the ground running, you can use the season's festive occasions to your business' best advantage. With a positive attitude and a little social savvy, the holiday season can prove to be most profitable for your business in the long run.

Party Hearty

Depending on your business and the kind of life you lead, you may receive anywhere from six to a dozen invitations for social gatherings of every kind-from holiday luncheons, to cocktail parties to dinner dances. While it may not be feasible to attend all of them, the point is to attend a substantial amount. Company Christmas parties as well as other industry gatherings should definitely be high up on your list, but don't discount the family reunions either, as they too can provide the unexpected contact or customer. Bear in mind as well that, the invitation you accept need not be your own. If your spouse or partner can bring a guest to a company shindig, seize the day and go. You may not know anyone, but every stranger is a potential business relationship, redefined.

Do Your Homework

Establish a set of goals that is in line with your business' current needs. Do a mental review of your organization. Are you seeking to refresh your customer base? Looking for a franchise partner, a new supplier, a public relations firm? Weigh these needs and goals against the people who might be in attendance at this function.

You may be looking for specific people; on the other hand, you may not know precisely what you're looking for. The key, however, is to keep your company's present status top-of-mind in these social situations. That way, when an opportunity arises in the form of a partner, a customer or a client-you are alert and can take action accordingly.

Work along the philosophy that "it's good to know people in the know." In short, although you may not have a particular need or problem, but there may be people in attendance who will be good to know for future reference. Take a moment to determine who those people might be.

Dress (And Act) The Part

This may seem like it's stating the obvious, but sometimes, we can get a little carried away by the holiday festivities. And this could mean anything from simply not paying enough attention to your wardrobe or going a little bit overboard at the open bar or the buffet. It's a party, an occasion to have a good time. But when you have your best foot forward, you are better able to enjoy yourself in moderation. What's more, you place yourself and your business in the best and most advantageous position. No one wants to sit around on the morning and say, "I shouldn't have," or "I should have."

Don't Forget The Cards

Not the Christmas cards, the business cards. In the festive merriment and the holiday cheer, these little cards can easily slip your mind. But they are your tools of business. And in a social situation, they are more important than your hand-phone, your palm pilot or your laptop. The simple truth: nobody keeps pieces of paper with hastily scribbled numbers on them. Almost everyone keeps a business card.

Test the temper of the party. Often, it isn't appropriate to whip out your card case at every introduction. On the other hand, after a general friendly exchange and getting-to-know you, asking someone if you might have their card is perfectly right and natural, as is giving them yours.

Be a Good Guest: Act List A Host, A Little

A good guest mingles with other guests-even the ones he may not know. Circulate freely and meet as many people as possible. Remember that attendees often gather in cliques. This can strand new arrivals, who stand alone, fearing everyone is looking at them. Don't let fear deter you. Take a deep breath, grab a drink and seek an opening in a group.

You may not be the host, but sometimes, acting like one can work in your favor. Draw other people into a conversation, and perform introductions as needed. If you act with ease and friendliness, people will be grateful and remember you for it. And when you succeed in putting people you don't know at ease, they open up to you, and you get to know them better.

Introduce Yourself, Introduce Your Business

Have a ready adaptable "self-introduction" that presents you and your business simply and succinctly - without sounding insincere. The point is to get to know people and to let people get to know you. There is nothing wrong with that, and what happens after that is a matter of where you take it.

Also, when you start out by telling a person what it is you do, they are more likely to respond in kind. Sometimes, the question, "Tell me, what do you do?" can put people off and make them feel defensive. On the other hand, when you start by being forthright and open, you give them more reasons to do the same.

Sometimes the goal of socializing, even for business, is simply establishing friendly relations with people, who might, later on, become your friends. Many entrepreneurs who have established thriving businesses hire people they know. Friendship can be the basis for a solid relationship of any nature: personal or professional.

Party Isn't Overt: Follow-Up

At the end of a party, you could have bunch of cards that will quickly grow stale if you let enough time pass and you can no longer match a face to the name in print. So once you get home, jot down on the back of every card, a few details designed to jog your memory about that person.

But don't just file the cards away. Keep in touch. These days, that's easy as hitting return on your keyboard. Sending a friendly email to say that it was a pleasure meeting with that person is a viable way of staying in contact. A line or two about your business takes this one step further.

Social occasions can present a multitude of opportunities for your growing business. But the entrepreneur who is keen to maximize these opportunities looks out for them. The contacts you make can be an extremely valuable resource-but like any resource, they have to be utilized. It's not an automatic, and it won't happen like magic. Start the ball rolling this holiday season, but what happens in the coming new year will also depend on you.

(This article was contributed by Christopher Lai, Director-Head of Business Development, CSG, American Express International Inc.)

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