The best time to start building your sales career network is NOW. Not when you need a job or realize that you hate the company you work for and the boss is a tyrant. It is important to work on your professional network if you plan to stay and progress in sales.
You don't need to only look outside of your company to network or travel to conventions to meet people that share the same profession as you. You have to take the deliberate steps and schedule time to work on building relationships and strengthening your network.
I have seen it many times throughout my career, I get a random call from a past colleague that I haven't talked to in years. Most of the time the same people that call are the ones that I have barely even talked to during my time working with them. They call up, with desperation on their voice stating that they need to find a job immediately and wondering if I know of anything or to keep an eye out for them. Now let me explain why this method of reactive networking is not as effective as proactive networking and what you can start doing today to build a strong professional sales career network.
Reactive networking usually happens when the complacent sales professional is jolted into the realization that they need to find a job due to a reorganization, lay-off, etc. As the reactive net-worker starts seeking for jobs, he/she doesn't receive too many calls, if any for a job interview. They then start researching and learn that one of the best sources of gaining a job interview is through a referral or by learning of a hidden job through their professional network. The reactive net-worker then starts thinking of people they used to work with, find old collegue's cards and start dialing and asking in desperation for a job.
Now this method might pan out, but usually it would have to be the right timing and when you call someone out of the blue, and they are genuinely looking to help you, they are also starting to look after you have informed them. The more effective way is to start building your network and to continue to nourish it and develop it. Many people also fall into the mistake of thinking that the higher number of people they "connect" with, the better odds they have of gaining a referral or lead for a job opportunity.
Instead, the smart proactive net-worker looks for quality contacts and even though the quantity is not there, the quality is. These net workers look to build relationships and spend time developing their network. I make it a point to call a person in my network once every week. I randomly call a person in my contacts and just reach out to see how they are doing. At least once a month, I would reach out to people I have met or worked with and set up time for a breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, coffee etc. In building a network this way, you will be in the minds of your network and they trust and feel a lot more comfortable to recommend you for a job opening.
There have been numerous times that people within my professional sales network would randomly call me and tell me that a job opportunity came up in their company and they had thought that I would be a perfect candidate. Trust me, the jobs come to me.
In sales we use Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools to keep track of our customers, discussions, birthdays, profile and know the ins and outs of them. I have applied this to my network and also to my friends and family. This way, I send a personal handwritten birthday card on their birthday or anniversary. I know their kid's names, birthdays and their favorite foods.
It just makes sense to start building your network NOW rather than waiting until it is too late or when you actually need it, because by then, you are just reaching and hoping for the best. It does take time, energy and work to build and maintain, but it is well worth the effort.