As published as in Forbes.com

Karen is the CEO of a consulting company. Over the years, she has developed an extraordinary network of contacts. If she wants to accelerate growth in her business, she needs to uncover good opportunities. Her existing contacts are a great potential source. I asked, “How often do you ask if your contacts might be aware of business for you?” Karen said, “We don’t like to come off as pushy. Nobody likes to feel like someone is trying to sell them something.” I shared with Karen the slime-free way to ask for referrals and new business.

The Wrong Way

You’ve certainly attended a networking event where you encounter the pariah – the person everyone hates. This is the person who is shoving their business card in front of everyone. When they ask for your card, you know that you’ll end up as an unwilling recipient of their hourly email blast trying to pitch their stuff that you don’t need. Many years ago, while this approach was never popular, it may have been effective in that those reps often had information you could only get from them. Today, your customers can get information from a variety of sources. Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of an uninvited sales pitch .

The mistake many networkers make is they approach each node on the network in a binary fashion: Specifically, “Do you have business for me?” This immediately puts the recipient in an uncomfortable position. You might ask in a more subtle way, yet the result is the same. This is why when an associate in a store approaches customers saying, “May I help you?” the most common response is, “No thanks. Just looking.”

How To Think Of Networks

If you think of your professional network, each node is a person who is not connected to others via a straight line. If you know 20 people, each of those 20 people is interconnected with others on their networks. You will have some contacts in common, and they will have many contacts you don’t know. Instead of looking at your network as potential customers, think of them as potential introduction points. In order to be effective, you need a concise message, and a proven approach. Let me offer both:

The Right Concise Message

Don’t start by describing what you do. Instead, start by describing the problems you are good at solving. Think of the symptoms that are an indicator that you might be able to help. Bob London of LondonInk.com refers to this concept as the Elevator Rant. Put simply, what would your client complain about that if you heard it, you’d know you can help them better than anyone else?” You can feed that into the formula I’ve discussed in the past called the Same Side Pitch.

A Proven Slime-Free Approach

Even if someone has some interest in whatever it is you offer, how you raise the topic can be the difference between inviting interest, or repelling interest. It is important to find a same-side approach that can pique interest without being seen as pushy. If I thought someone would be a good candidate for me as a speaker at their event, I would not lead with “Are you putting on an event and need a professional speaker?” I might instead say, “My clients come to me when they are putting on an event, and they maybe have had a bad past experience with a speaker who didn’t tailor the message to their audience, didn’t leave the audience with actionable messages to apply to their business, or just didn’t ‘WOW’ the attendees. When they’ve had people speak about sales, it seemed outdated or slimy.” Instead of asking my contact if they need that, I instead would ask, “Do you know of one or two people who might be facing that challenge?” This takes the focus and awkwardness away from my contact. I just want to know if they know someone who might be facing the stuff I am good at solving.

The Benefits Of Asking The Right Question

By asking if my contact knows one or two people who might be facing that challenge, I get multiple benefits: 1) If my contact does not have a need on their own, they might identify others who might have a need; 2) My contact will not feel like I am “selling” to them. Rather, I identified problems I solve, and asked if she knows others I might be able to help; and 3) If my contact does have a need, then she can say, “Yes. I’m facing that problem.” Now our discussion is all about how I might be able to help solve those issues, rather than how I can sell them something. The reason I ask if she knows “one or two” other people plays into how our brains work. If I ask if you have friends who like college basketball, your brain creates a vague bucket with your friends who fit that criteria. If I ask you to think of “one or two friends who are college basketball fanatics,” then your brain creates a discrete list of the two people. This makes it easier to turn those names into action.

Valuable Introductions

A benefit to leveraging your network connections for new introductions, it helps pave your path. People are more open to talking to a “so called” stranger if the introduction comes from someone they trust. A valuable introduction also helps when a potential client has a “Gatekeeper.

It’s Your Turn

What ways have you been asked about business that have turned you off? What methods have made you comfortable?