Nobody likes to make small talk. Or wear a name tag. And very few possess the acrobatic skill required to simultaneously shake someone’s hand, offer a business card, and not drop a drink down his suit. That’s where Christine Hauer comes in. She’s a professional wingman, and she’s very pleased to meet you. And you. And him. And also that lady.
For a flat fee of $250, Hauer, 25, will attend one business event with you. She’ll start a conversation with the people you want to meet, talk you up in front of them, and fill the inevitable conversation lulls. (Hauer’s Networking Tip 1: “When you arrive at an event, take five minutes to survey the scene. Don’t rush up to the first people you see.”) For $75, she’ll help you prepare for the event ahead of time.
It takes confidence and a natural gift for schmoozing to be able to network for someone else. Hauer is enthusiastic and likable, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s also very pretty—last year a talent scout stopped her on the street in New York, where she lives, and asked if she wanted to model. (She said yes.) Hauer grew up in Aiken, S.C., and studied international business at the University of South Carolina. She moved to New York after college and got a job at a boutique communications agency, Thunder11. In January 2012 she started her own firm, Hifive Agency, at which she advises 40 clients, including tech entrepreneurs, musicians, and New York Jets defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis, on what she calls personal branding, which is a fancy way of saying PR. “I hate the word PR, it’s so … blech,” she says.
Soon after founding Hifive, Hauer discovered her clients all had one thing in common: They hated to network. “I’ve seen big executives who get nervous, freak out, or break into a dry sweat when they have to attend an event,” she says. “Which is a problem, because face-to-face networking is still the best way to make business connections.”
Photograph by Aaron Richter for Bloomberg Businessweek
It’s a self-serving statement, but studies back her up. In 2009 the Harvard Business Review surveyed more than 2,000 companies and found that 95 percent of respondents valued in-person interaction more than e-mail and phone conversations. While the online networking website LinkedIn (LNKD) now boasts 225 million users, as many as 70 percent to 80 percent of jobs are believed to be unadvertised, says job placement firm Career Horizons. “Technology has been a great blessing but also a great curse to companies,” says Matt Youngquist, Career Horizon’s founder. “Now that people can just e-mail their résumés, one job posting will generate thousands of responses. More jobs are driven underground, because companies don’t want to deal with the flood of random résumés when they post a job overtly.” The accounting agency Ernst & Young, for example, fills 45 percent of non-entry-level positions with people recommended by current employees. Connecting to someone through LinkedIn or Facebook has its benefits, but the best way to get someone’s attention is decidedly old-school: Stick out your hand and introduce yourself. Or get Hauer to do it for you.
You can pay for a dating coach, a stylist, and a personal assistant to pick up your dry cleaning, but networking isn’t usually outsourced. “It’s a novel idea, but do I approve of it? No. Do I think it will work? No,” says Julia Hobsbawm, the founder of the British networking organization Editorial Intelligence, who helps people make business connections through her company’s website. Hobsbawm agrees that in-person introductions can lead to career contacts but argues that it’s a mistake to rely on someone else to make those connections. “It’s like when you go to the gym and see people who are pedaling very slowly on their bikes while reading their Kindle,” she says. “They’re not really exercising, they’re just going through the motions.”
Kris Schumacher, a 37-year-old analytics expert, disagrees. He hired Hauer for some pre-event coaching before he met with investors for a new organic food company he’s trying to launch. “I like her à la carte approach,” he says. “I’m just starting out, so I don’t have the money to hire a full marketing team. But Christine can help me market myself.” Hauer taught him how to describe his business in regular conversation, stripped of weird buzzwords like “integration” and “farm to consumer.” “She also told me not to talk too much about myself until someone asks,” Schumacher says. “It really let me network effectively, which, despite going to a decent MBA program, I never really learned how to do.”
Is it weird to show up to professional gatherings with a 25-year-old who won’t stop telling strangers how awesome you are? Hauer admits her age might put off some clients. “You’d think it’d be an issue, but so far it hasn’t been,” she says. Schumacher wasn’t deterred. “As long as you have the knowledge, you can be just as effective when you’re young. Christine has it,” he says. She offers to accompany me to my next event to prove her method works. When I tell her I don’t attend many, Hauer disapproves. “How else are you going to meet people?” she asks. She then says one should go to at least two events a month and make a handful of business connections at each. You have to sell yourself, Hauer says. You have to set goals for specific types of people you want to meet. You have to give out business cards—but not those small, trendy ones the size of a nasal strip. “Don’t get those, they’re easier to lose,” she says. “Plus, when you hand them out, people just roll their eyes. It’s like, ‘We get it, you’re cool.’ ”
Armed with normal-size cards, we head out to a fundraiser for Charity: Water, a nonprofit that provides clean drinking water to people in the developing world. To prepare for our networking blitz, Hauer presents a three-page list of instructions and goals—Tip 2: “Show your teeth when you smile; people will like you more”—and gives a lesson on small talk so I won’t be stiff. According to Hobsbawm’s Editorial Intelligence, 85 percent of people feel shy and awkward when they first try to network.
“It’s not as forced as it sounds. People will be thankful you’re doing the hard work for them,” Hauer promises. “And when there’s a pause, just say something about Charity: Water, then be, like, ‘Speaking of water, I’m going to go get some,’ ” she counsels.
At the fundraiser, Hauer completely pulls through. When I see a group of people I’d like to speak to, she takes the lead and makes the first handshake. “This is my friend Claire,” she tells a Charity: Water employee, then launches into a two-minute overview of my job while I pretend to look embarrassed. (Asked how we knew each other, Hauer told people, “Through work,” or something similarly evasive.) “Oh, that’s so fascinating,” the employee, Kaitlyn Jankowski, says, then asks follow-up questions and gets my business card. Jankowski introduces me to Charity: Water’s main videographer, who travels to Third World countries and documents the scarcity of clean water. I meet another person, and another. A man wearing Google (GOOG) Glass saunters by. Hauer’s self-confidence has rubbed off, and I walk up and introduce myself. “How’d you get those?” I ask. (Turns out he’s a Google engineer.)
At the end of the night, I have a handful of business cards, a bunch of new invitations to connect on LinkedIn, and a first-hand look at Google Glass. I probably won’t end up working with any of the people I met, but a few days later, Hauer helps craft a follow-up e-mail to send to those new contacts. Anyway, her most helpful moment came at the event itself, when she noticed I’d been cornered by a banker who looked a little like Howie Mandel and wanted to talk all about his company and career, keeping me from everyone else. Hauer inserted herself into our conversation, chatted for a few minutes, and then pulled me away. “Excuse me,” she told the banker, “but it’s getting warm in here. We’re going to go find some water.”