How to network without wearing out your welcome

July 1, 2011, 2:32 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I’m hoping you can clear something up for me. I’ve been looking for a job in project management for the past several months, after taking “early retirement” as an alternative to getting laid off, although I can’t afford to retire yet.

I keep hearing that I should be contacting everyone I’ve known in my career to ask if they know of any openings, since the best available jobs (especially management positions) aren’t advertised anywhere. So I’ve been doing that, but it’s getting to the point where people aren’t returning my phone calls or answering my Tweets anymore, and I feel like I’m wearing out my welcome. Do you or your readers have any suggestions on where to go from here? — Outside Looking In

Dear Outside: No doubt about it, in this economy, plenty of well-connected people have come down with an ailment you might call networking fatigue.

“If you contact someone in your network and that person seems not to want to talk to you, then it’s the wrong person,” says Jonathan Kreindler. “He or she is probably hearing from too many job seekers, and they’re all after the exact same information about current job openings.”

Kreindler, who is a co-founder of FreshTransition, a company that offers online career-management tools, contends that the way to get past that bottleneck is to start thinking long-term, by positioning yourself to take advantage of opportunities that don’t exist yet. This may sound impossible but, Kreindler notes, it’s the way top salespeople beat out the competition and win new customers.

“Successful salespeople have a knack for spotting future opportunities,” he says. “They develop leads by building relationships gradually over time.” For job hunters, this approach makes sense for a couple of reasons.

First, “companies are like living organisms. Things change constantly. People retire or quit and new projects get launched, so new opportunities are always on the horizon,” says Kreindler. “By putting yourself ahead of the curve, you find out about them in advance rather than after the fact.”

And second, taking a long-term approach helps avoid the situation you describe, an increasingly common one these days, where “you run the risk of wearing out your network,” Kreindler says, adding: “Once you’ve asked about current openings and there aren’t any, the conversation is over. Not only that, but you’ve defined the equation so that, the next time you contact that person, they already know what it’s about and, if they can’t help you, there’s no dialogue.”

By contrast, cultivating your network the way top salespeople do is far more likely to lead to the kind of continuing connections that result in getting hired. Four tips from Kreindler on how to do it:

1. Start an exchange of information. “The key is to know your target industry so well that, when you communicate with people in it, you’re participating in a discussion, not asking for a favor,” Kreindler suggests.

“Offering information, or asking someone’s views on an industry issue, rather than requesting help, sets up a completely different dynamic” — one that may make people more willing to take your phone calls.

2. Manage your pipeline of prospects. Kreindler notes that top salespeople are meticulous about keeping track of every conversation with a potential customer, and job seekers should follow their lead.

“Keep detailed records of everyone you’ve spoken with, when, and what you talked about,” he says. “Then, when you see something relevant in the trade press or an industry blog, send it along and continue the conversation.”

3. Listen twice as much as you talk. The more carefully you listen, the better able you’ll be to recognize opportunities on the horizon, “so you’ll know how to position yourself to take advantage when a trend becomes a job opening,” says Kreindler.

4. Be the “go-to” person on a particular subject. In many industries now, top salespeople act like consultants, bringing problem-solving expertise rather than just pushing a product or service, and Kreindler advises job seekers to do likewise.

One way is to set aside a bit of time each week to answer questions in the Q & A section of LinkedIn (LNKD), which “offers a tremendous opportunity to connect with people who are struggling with an issue you have worked on in the past,” Kreindler says. “When you answer a question, include your contact information and a brief ‘elevator pitch’ about your background.” You never know who might see it and decide they need you.

Kreindler is the first to admit that this all adds up to a lot of work. “It’s not easy, and it takes patience,” he says. But, he adds, “Salespeople often get the sale because they are trusted and have built their credibility over time, not because they hit prospects over the head with a sales pitch. To succeed now, job seekers need to adopt the same mindset.”

Talkback: Do you agree that networking fatigue is a problem for job seekers now? What can they do about it? Leave a comment below.