Have you received a LinkedIn invite from somebody you don’t know, or at least aren’t familiar enough with to welcome to your professional network? Did you accept their invite anyway because you didn’t want to “hurt their feelings”? Do you connect with contacts you don’t have an existing relationship with already?

I’ve been using LinkedIn to help nurture and maintain my professional relationships for almost 12 years and it makes me sad when I see smart people using LinkedIn the same way they might use other social networks.

Who is this advice meant for?

This post isn’t for everyone. Some of you are using LinkedIn in a manner that works for you. I’ve written this for professionals who might not have given a lot of thought to how they’ve used LinkedIn in the past, and perhaps share some insight into how I use LinkedIn to successfully build (and protect) a professional network of close business relationships with people I trust, and who trust me.

Your professional network is a valuable asset.

It’s true, although many people I talk to don’t realize this fact. Every job I’ve ever had was a direct result of an introduction from someone with whom I’ve had a professional relationship. My next job will be too. I’ve never read the “job classifieds,” or whatever they’re called these days. A few times in my career, when I was doing business development, the majority of my business came from existing clients who referred me to new clients. It doesn’t matter if I’m looking for a job, a new customer, or a mentor… my professional network can help me.

I think of my professional network of contacts as a “relationship piggy bank.” The whole point of having a piggy bank (or bank account, if you insist on being a grown up), is that I invest in it and I can “draw” from it during times of need. But if I fill this bank with low quality, ill-maintained, or non-existent relationships with people I’ve never met or hardly know, what kind of help will they be when I need them?

When I accept an invite from a professional connection, in a sense, I’m making them a promise. The promise is that I will help them should they need anything from me; I expect the same from them. If I don’t know them well, and they don’t know me, we will have severely handicapped in the promises we’ve made each other.

relationship_piggy_bankMy network consists of close business contacts and friends that I can call on if I have a question regarding just about anything. This is because I maintain these relationships, and I don’t just add somebody to my network until I know who they are.

Most people won’t argue that relationships are valuable, yet they’ll still make the mistake of stuffing their bank with “relationship pennies,” eventually filling their bank with worthless currency of no mutual benefit. To be clear, I’m not saying that an actual person is worth only a penny. I’m saying that when you connect with somebody you don’t know, the current relationship value is non-existent.

I see this all the time on Twitter, where it’s possible to buy Twitter followers for a fee. What good does 30K followers get you if nobody engages with your content? How close can I be to the 800 friends I have on Facebook?

Of course, a relationship’s value will hopefully accrue, which means even if you and I don’t know each other today we could easily improve our “penny” relationship status over time.

When should you decline a LinkedIn invite?

For me, the biggest factor in accepting an invite from a professional contact centers around how well I know the person. If I don’t know them, then I will politely decline the invite. There are different ways of “knowing” somebody, and in today’s online world it’s possible to get to know people without having ever met them in person. Ten years ago, I would never have added a connection to my network if I hadn’t met the individual in person over coffee, for lunch, whatever.

My approach to accepting LinkedIn invites is very simple. It goes like this:

  1. Do I know this personal in a professional capacity?
  2. Is this individual trustworthy, with ethics, morals, and values similar to my own?
  3. Would I be comfortable recommending them to others in my network?

If I flowcharted it out, it would look like this.

linkedin-relationship-flowchart

 

Some might say that I risk losing out on potentially valuable relationships when I decline LinkedIn invites (I’ve heard the “opportunity knocks only once” example more than once). I don’t buy that.

My approach actually shows people know how seriously I take my professional network. Today’s world is hyper-connected and the majority of “professional connections” people claim to have are more akin to “one-time conference acquaintances.” To me, these aren’t really relationships; they belong in my iPhone’s contacts, or a CRM such as Highrise, Sugar, or Salesforce… not a social relationship service like LinkedIn.

A rejection letter is a sweet way to “kick-off” a new relationship!

Although this article recommends rejecting invites from people you do not have an existing relationship with, it is also an article about welcoming opportunities to meet new people!

When I receive an invite with a thoughtfully written note from somebody I don’t know, I make sure I’m clear that although I’m not prepared to accept their invite today, I am willing and excited to get to know them better starting right now. I will also write a thoughtful response, and if I think there’s something I can do to be helpful in some way I’m going to suggest a couple of dates and times for us to connect and talk about what help I can offer.

This rejection letter has worked so well for me in the past that I feel bad for only sharing it now.

 

Hi Richard,

It was really great to meet you last week at SxSW.

Thanks so much for your offer to connect on LinkedIn. At the risk of sounding unappreciative, I’m going to decline for now until we know each other better; I hope that’s ok.

Was there something specific you’d like to talk about?

From what I’ve heard, you and the rest of the team are doing amazing things and I’d love to be in a position to help if you need something. I have 20 minutes this Wednesday at 2p ET and then Friday at 3p ET. You can reach me at [email protected], or via phone at 212.888.9999.

Good luck with your upcoming public beta launch!
-Ben

 

My approach does take a bit of a commitment. I do have to make sure I have a couple of times available for a twenty minute call, but it’s been worth it. Some of my best relationships have started off this way. Over the years I’ve had one person become angry at the rejection. One. He was a recruiter. And I’d wager that it was not a connection that would have bore any fruit.

It would be nearly impossible to put a price on my professional network, but over the years, the reciprocal benefits from having strong relationships with my network can be measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. Whichever approach you choose to build your professional network, I hope you’re building this same kind of value.

Enjoy the relationship.