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Face time trumps online networking options

Though social media might seem like the obvious choice for networking, young professionals in the Rochester area often depend on the personal touch when reaching out to important business contacts.

“I personally think there’s a lot of value for face-to-face interaction,” says Nicole VanGorder, CEO and co-owner of Upstate Special Needs Planning.

Whether they reach out to potential customers or other important people at business-networking events, fundraisers for non-profits or other venues, all do so in ways that fit their personal styles.

Paul Cypher, CEO, president and founder of CypherWorx Inc., leaves his Linked-In account and Facebook page to the person who handles marketing for his firm.

“I’m not really good at networking in social media,” he says.

Instead, Cypher taps into an informal network of friends and professional colleagues for business opportunities for his firm, which provides online credentialing and certification programs for professionals in niche fields. A shared meal or a meeting at one of his sons’ soccer matches might yield useful information.

“They’ll say, ‘I know this person or that person,’ and before you know it, you’re in touch with people you really need to get in touch with,” explains Cypher, who was named a Forty Under 40 honoree in 2000.

Cypher’s professional relationship with Larry Sorel, director of the Seneca Park Zoo Society, helped his firm develop a whole new avenue of business. Cypher was the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s director of development in the late 1990s. He came to know Sorel when the Strasenburgh Planetarium, which is part of that institution, and the Seneca Park Zoo partnered on promotional projects. 

After CypherWorx opened its doors, Sorel used his contacts in the zoo community to help Cypher reach out to those in charge of the San Diego Zoo. With the zoo’s help, CypherWorx developed the content for online training programs for zookeepers and other professionals who work in such facilities. After only one year of sales, 170 U.S. zoos—70 percent of those in the country—have purchased CypherWorx’s programs.

“We built a whole business model through networking,” Cypher says.

Salley Thornton says social media have their limits, at least for business purposes.

“If you’re good at reading body language and understanding nuance, and I think I am able to do that fairly well, you miss a lot,” says Thornton, vice president of marketing communications for Toshiba Business Solutions.

Instead, Thornton heads out to meetings of professional organizations and business events to gain face time with local movers and shakers.

“If I have a connection to them, and I meet them face-to-face, I think I have a much better chance of extending that relationship further than if I’m reaching out online,” she explains.

Thornton also uses a personal touch with her marketing team, which covers Rochester, Florida and California. As many as four times a year, the team comes together to discuss work face to face.

“There’s just things we can get done when in a room together that are more difficult to achieve over the phone,” asserts Thornton, a 2006 Forty Under 40 alum.

She does use LinkedIn and other social media when recruiting, but those who cold-contact her via those means probably shouldn’t bother.

“I would not expect to connect to that person,” Thornton says. “I’m surprised that many people look at it that way.”

For Matthew Tipple, a vice president and middle market commercial banker at JP Morgan Chase & Co, face-to-face networking presents an opportunity to make the deeper kinds of connections that are essential to his business.

“People enter financial services banking relationships with people they know and trust,” says Tipple, who belongs to the 2014 Forty Under 40 class. “To develop that trust, I think it’s very important to have in-person meetings, on-the-phone conversations.”

Though Tipple is on LinkedIn and other social media, he says those in the banking industry tend to avoid using them to conduct business.

‘We’re trained to take it seriously, so we probably do it less and less than another industry,” he says. “I don’t see it as a good primary way to create connections.”

Justin Copie, executive vice president at Innovative Solutions, credits the information technology consultancy’s networking strategy for much of the 20 percent annual growth it has experienced over the past five years.

“We have created so much more awareness in face-to-face networking events,” says Copie, a 2011 Forty Under 40 honoree. “We literally call it ‘being seen.’”

At the same time, Copie piloted the firm’s use of LinkedIn for business purposes. At one time, he and others at Innovative Solutions would regularly lunch with a benefits broker in a bid to exchange possible sales leads. Now, they no longer have to do so.

“With tools like LinkedIn and other social media—we use Twitter quite a bit—we have figured out other ways to see who’s connected to who to more directly ask for those introductions,” Copie says.

Personal networking is still the norm, however, and grows more important as professionals climb the corporate ladder.

“If I’m looking to meet with a CEO, the face-to-face handshake quick exchange 30 seconds … is absolutely still more effective,” Copie says. “I believe that’s because the higher you go, the more inundated they are digitally.”

VanGorder, whose firm provides life care planning and other services for families that have children with special needs, says “good, old-fashioned shaking hands” is the most impactful way to make business connections. The right setting is critical.

“It’s most effective when you’re somewhere naturally, and it’s an organic experience,” says VanGorder, who received a Forty Under 40 honor last year.

A board member of several organizations, she tends to extend her hand at board meetings, at charitable events, and in other venues in which she feels comfortable—even local wine festivals. After exchanging business cards and information with a contact, VanGorder follows up with a handwritten note, which she mails to the person.

“If you want to be two steps ahead in getting in front of people, you have to be out there doing different things,” VanGorder says.

The approach bore fruit just recently. After the school year began, VanGorder sent notes to clients that have children in school, inviting them to contact her with any questions they had.

“I got notes back saying, ‘Thank you so much; nobody else sent me a note this time of year,’” VanGorder says.

Some recipients responded with requests to discuss their situations with VanGorder—which could lead to additional business for Upstate Special Needs.

As valuable as personal contacts are to today’s young professionals, such contacts could become more and more a thing of the past, as those who were practically born with social media accounts grow more numerous in the business world. According to a Pew Research Center study, LinkedIn usage amongst 18 to 29-year-olds rose by about 8 percent from 2013 to 2014, to 23 percent. Usage by those in the 30 to 49-year-old group topped out at 31 percent—a 4 percent increase.

Copie has already begun to notice the effects of such changes amongst those he interacts with at work.

“Some of the executives we work with are younger, and … it’s a phone conference call and a screen share, and they feel as though they can accomplish the same,” he says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

11/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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