How to successfully network & get a referral

Networking is an excellent way to build lasting relationships with people who can help you at all stages of your career. Sadly, it is sometimes limited to a transactional interaction – “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”. Thinking of it in that sense makes it difficult to form an authentic relationship with someone.

So imagine, you are at a careers event and a consultant from the firm is presenting to the room. You are impressed by the consultant’s career path – it is exactly what you have envisioned for yours. You want to add this consultant to your network but you are unsure of how you even go about doing this post the small breakout room you just had. To be successful, the consultant has to remember you and get to know you well enough to take time out of their week to help you refine your application and possibly, refer you to their firm. Think about the hundreds of people who want the same thing from this consultant. How then will they pick who they spend their time connecting with further. Continue reading to find out how you can successfully network with that consultant to gain their favour/support. If you’re not in this situation, fear not, this article also covers other effective tools for networking in other situations.

Consulting networking events

The scenario above describes ‘the consulting event’ – the networking opportunity that is open to all. Consulting firms tend to organise these events just before the start of the new recruitment cycle. This gives candidates the opportunity to get to know consultants and ask their burning questions directly. These events can expose you to more consultants than anywhere else so it is good to attend as many as possible from the different firms – even if the content remains the same most of the time. See it as a moment to network until you have made the right connections.

The events range from smaller sized coffee chats, where you are typically two or one to one with a consultant, to larger sized information sessions as we described earlier. Your networking strategy should differ in both cases. Let’s now touch on the how.

  • Coffee chats

If you are having a one-to-one coffee chat with a consultant, your questions should be less generic and more specific. Asking questions they will hear from the other applicants is not going to make them remember you. Centre your questions around the consultant and their career path at the firm or as a consultant. For example:

  • What has been the most rewarding part of your job?
  • If you could do it again, how would you navigate your first couple of months as a consultant?
  • Can you see yourself in consulting for the long term?

Be very engaged, listen carefully to what they say and be reactive – responding to the points that they make. You will know you are making a good impression if it becomes less of a QnA and more of a conversation. The conversation will be dynamic, enjoyable and informative – it should feel as if you have just made a new acquaintance. Whilst speaking to the consultants, your goal should be to make a strong impression that shows your readiness for the job. If you get this right, you shouldn’t need to ask for a referral. They will naturally just put your name forward to the recruiting team.

After your chat with the consultant, ask for the best way to stay in touch with them and send a follow-up thank you email. See example below  of a good specific and memorable thankyou email you can use.

Hi [Name]

Thank you so much for spending your time speaking to me today. The conversation was very enlightening. I particularly loved hearing about [insert specific thing that stood out to you in discussion]. 

Learning about your experience gave me more motivation for applying to consulting as I believe it is a right fit for me. I will be working hard on my application/ preparing for the interview for [insert firm name]. 

I look forward to catching up again soon,

Best Wishes,

[your name]

  • Information sessions

If you are at a larger event, the typical recruitment drives where firms bring in around 5-10 consultants to present on behalf of the company, your networking moment happens after the presentations. Now, the first thing to say is, don’t get sidetracked by the free food. The number of people at these events make it difficult to get a moment alone with the consultant. If 50 people showed up to the events with 10 consultants, then at least 5 people will be around one consultant at any moment. You will struggle to make a lasting impact amongst a group of people. Therefore, your strategy here is to either try to stay late enough or come to the event early. The size of the crowd is much less giving you a better chance at getting a brief one-to-one chat with a consultant.

After your chat, get their contact email or make a linkedin connection on the spot. As expressed earlier, send a follow up thankyou email to keep that connection. You can use a similar version to that of the template here

  • Invite only events 

Some firms hold invite-only events which tend to be associated with an affiliation group at the firm (women’s, LGBTQ+  or Black network) for candidates with high potential. Use the firm’s websites to find out about these events as these may give you a better chance to get a one-to-one chat with a consultant than an information session. Once you are invited to one of these events, the goal still remains to leave a lasting impression so combine both strategies above and you can be sure to make a meaningful connection that can lead to a referral.

Reaching out to your existing network

As the saying goes, “your network is your net worth”. We all have a network, both formal and informal, in the relationships we’ve formed thus far. For undergraduates or those in university, that can look like your coursemates, your professors, your society friends and family members. For experienced hires, this includes a further group of peers or mentors you work with currently.  Within this network, you may already know consultants – for example friends who just got hired by the same company you’re applying for. The best thing about this is you skip all the small talk as this person already knows you and will be willing to help you. For close friends you can directly ask them for a referral to their firm in a respectful email. Make sure to include your application deadline and your refined CV as they may need to forward this to the recruiting team. Schedule a call to catch up with them If you don’t feel at ease asking through an email. On the call, try to express your interest in consulting, their firm and ask about their own experience working there. After the call, you can then send a follow up email to ask for a referral. If you can successfully use your existing relationships to get a referral, you save yourself a lot of networking time and effort from attending these consulting events and put yourself in a better position than a lot of candidates.

For those who don’t have a direct connection to a consultant, ask the people you know. This can be family first, the friends who have just started their professional career as they are likely to have a consultant in their network or your mentors. It may seem like a hassle now but this form of networking produces the best results and is the least time consuming. As this is an introduction from a friend the chances of you getting a response remains high. Once you’ve established contact with this consultant, set up a short coffee chat which you can now use the one-to-one strategy for getting the best out of your interaction. Make your interest in consulting and their firm very clear and steer away from generic questions. After the chat, you can now send a follow up thank you email  which you can then politely ask if they could refer you to the recruiting team at their firm.

Hi [Name]

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me. Your advice has been so helpful and hearing about your experience gave me more motivation for applying to your firm. 

I have been working hard on preparing my application, especially my CV, in the hopes of being invited for an interview. If possible, would you be able to pass my CV onto the recruiting team for the [insert role you are applying for] role.

Once again, thank you so much for your guidance. I look forward to speaking or meeting in person one day.

Best Wishes,

[your name]

For those who use social media to network, you can even put out a word on your instagram story or on twitter to your online community who may know consultants.

Reaching out to consultants online

Perhaps the least effective option is reaching out to consultants online. This is because the likelihood you get a response back can be quite slim. Where you can, try to use your network as a first option in meeting consultants. However, if you have no other choice, this can actually produce a result and is better than not doing anything at all.

As much as you can, try to find and connect with consultants that you have some similarity to. For example, you may have gone to the same university or have interned at the same company or even studied the same degree. LinkedIn allows you to make more targeted searches based on these similarities so make the best use of their search engine.

You can reach out to consultants of varying tenure. The higher the consultant is in their tenure, the less likely they are to respond. As a student, try reaching out to associates or consultants first (1-4 years consultant experience) before moving on to managers or partners. They may not have as much influence as a manager or partner but they can still give you a referral that can favour your application in the screening process. For experienced hires with longer tenure, the partners and senior managers should be your focus as you would need solid backing from someone with influence to get an interview through referral.

You can use the template below [Insert hyperlink to “cold contact intro email”]  when reaching out to consultants you find online. Your first option is to message them on linkedin. However, if you can find an email (on their profile for example) then reach out there instead to increase your chances of a response. Reach out to as many consultants as you can find (at least 10) and be patient as it may take some time to hear a response. Use this option well in advance of the recruitment process. This gives enough time to send a follow-up email and get a response as opposed to just doing so weeks before the formal deadline of your application. Finally, ensure you check over each email to avoid any name mistakes or grammatical errors that would dissuade a stranger from responding.

Dear/Hi [Name]

My name is [insert name] and I came across your profile on LinkedIn. I thought to reach out as [insert similarity eg. as an alumni of the University of Manchester] hoping to become a consultant.  I would greatly appreciate your advice and guidance on maneuvering the application process at your firm. 

[Insert firm name] stands out for its excellence in nurturing the brightest and sharpest consultants and is for this reason I have chosen to apply here. It would be great to hear more about your time as a consultant at your firm. 

Please let me know if you are available for a brief call this week or next. I am very happy to work around your schedule [nb only say if you can]. 

I look forward to hearing from you, 

Best Wishes,

[your name]

Here are some final tips on managing the networking process

  • Keep track of all the connections you’ve made (on a spreadsheet) to know when to send a follow-up email and to make sure you don’t forget who you’ve met.
  • Clean your CV in preparation for when you start networking as you never know when you might need to send it to the consultant who will pass it on to the recruiting team.
  • Always have your bank of questions ready (generic and specific) to ask the consultant if you get a call
  • Be prepared to answer fit interview style questions (e.g why consulting, why the firm)

Good luck!

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