It’s tempting to procrastinate when it comes to career networking, but procrastination, especially in job market slowdowns, can hurt job seekers more than they realize. Experts warn that the employment tide will change at some point, and you should be actively networking to take advantage of opportunities.

“Don’t wait until you need to network to start networking,” advised Matthew Moran, an IT career coach and author of The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit. And once you start networking, don’t quit.

“For IT people, it is essential to keep the network going,” said Beverly Kaye, a career coach and author in Scranton, PA. Consistent networking takes diligence, patience, and a will to incorporate networking into everyday life.

Keep eyes open for networking opportunities
Realize that you need to network all the time, regardless of your employment status. Moran, an admitted extrovert, introduces himself to strangers at coffee shops near his home in Scottsdale, AZ, and stays in touch with virtually everyone he has ever met on a regular basis—including his manager at the McDonald’s where he worked as a teenager. “I view professional networking as the single most important skill in career development,” he explained.

Don’t make the mistake of relying just on industry events for networking. Experts who were interviewed all agreed that attending large general trade shows, cold-calling companies, responding to ads on online job boards, and sending your resume to the HR department are all a waste of time.

Instead, focus on meeting people who could further your career, and develop relationships over time. Adam Charlson, a senior partner with Korn/Ferry International, recruits sales and marketing professionals for software companies in Silicon Valley. He said that, in most cases, cold-calling is not necessary if you explore your own contacts deeply enough. “You can always find someone who can give you an introduction to the right person,” he said.

Expand horizons
You may need to move out of your comfort zone—like Moran, who moved to Scottsdale from the Los Angeles area. Moran walked into 30 companies and asked to speak with the IT manager, resume in hand. He received plenty of rejections but managed to meet with a few VIPs. He wound up with some valuable networking contacts.

Moran isn’t likely the norm in the IT world. Few IT professionals feel comfortable acting as their own personal skills salespeople, and they seldom have the nerve to waltz into companies without an appointment or approach complete strangers and make small talk over a no-foam double latte.

But thanks to e-mail, you can make a lot of headway using some simple contact database organization skills. For example, Moran uses Microsoft Outlook to track and categorize all of his contacts into separate folders, such as Client, Vendor, or Friend. Here are some tips he shared on his networking organization approach:

  • He keeps a folder called Next Contact for people he wants to get in touch with over the next month.
  • He drags important e-mails requiring a response into a folder called Immediate Follow-up.
  • Whenever he has a few spare minutes during the day, he sends out a blanket e-mail message with a quick rundown on what he’s been up to, personalized slightly for each individual.
  • He always asks his contacts for their latest news.

“People like to know that you know they exist,” he observed. In Moran’s view, people who are used to hearing from you regularly are more receptive to hearing your marketing pitch.

One way to keep your networking movement going strong is to clip the short list of tips that experts provided in Figure A, and tape it to the monitor or office wall to remind you that every day should include some networking effort.

Figure A

Needed: A personality
No matter how organized you are at electronic and phone outreach, you must still learn how to communicate at formal and impromptu networking opportunities. “If you do not have a personality, develop one,” Moran advised. “Buy it. Go to Toastmasters. Learn to carry out a conversation that doesn’t include technology.”

By that, Moran means expanding your communication topic list by taking up hobbies or reading books that have nothing to do with technology and business. It’ll make you much more engaging at events and when you meet up with an important executive in the grocery checkout line.

For the painfully shy, Kaye provides a simple solution: Shake hands, ask for a business card, and make your exit. Later, e-mail the person with more information about yourself and your goals.

And, if you know ahead of time whom you might be talking to, do some research, advised Ken Hilving, a telecom consultant based in McKinney, TX. Hilving researches potential contacts and finds out whether they’ve been quoted in magazine articles, attended specialized networking functions, or have unique hobbies detailed on their personal Web sites. If so, Hilving will send an e-mail to the individual with a question about their interests or opinions.

While some people see right through this back-door strategy, Hilving thinks it shows gumption. When he meets the executives, Hilving strikes up a discussion about technologies or strategies they are using at the office. He hands out business cards—not resumes—and tries to make the conversation a two-way street. “At some point, they will ask, ‘What exactly is it that you do, Ken?'” he said.

Expand industry horizons as well
Just as important as how you network is whom you network with: Don’t limit yourself to the IT communities. Hilving attends local chamber of commerce meetings, and even suggests networking with people at church. Make the effort to meet people outside your company’s IT department, Moran said, and by all means, don’t forget that family members may work with people of value to you. Finally, stay in touch with former colleagues, employers, and clients and set up meetings with VC firms, which often have human capital partners who recruit for the firm’s portfolio companies, Charlson noted.

The coup de grace, of course, is the in-person meeting. Be aware that it may take several e-mail exchanges and a few months before the time is right to ask, Kaye said, but most executives can spare five minutes over coffee. What do you do if executives say they aren’t hiring for at least another six months? Smile and say you’ll come back at that point to talk, Moran said.