Planning for Business Networking Success

7.05.2010
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Why Do It?

Face to face networking is one of the cheapest and most effective forms of promotion for your business. We are all networkers since it is about relationships and, thankfully, people still buy people. Clients recommend you if you’ve done a good job. Rarely do they do so if they don’t like you as well as value your service and what you’ve delivered. Hence, it is about relationships.

Large businesses as well as small ones should consider networking as a fundamental part of the promotion of their business. Back-scratching has been going on forever and it is still valid today. But don’t forget, networking is two-way and is based on relationships.

Wikipedia describes business networking as:

“A marketing method by which business opportunities are created through networks of like-minded business people. There are several prominent business networking organizations that create models of networking activity that, when followed, allow the business person to build new business relationship and generate business opportunities at the same time”.

Hence, it’s about building rapport and trust before you get business. Hunters sometimes roam networking events touting their wares. We’ve all met them and few people respond to them. Therefore, ask yourself the question. Are you currently a hunter or a gatherer in a networking context? Be prepared to give first in order to receive. That possibly even includes sharing some of your skills and secrets with others. Make others want to come to you for advice and support, Make yourself an introducer and facilitator. Help those you meet to get what they want and they will want to reciprocate.

4Networking is a networking organisation that suggests four stages i.e. Meet, Like, Know and Trust.

Business Networking International, the largest in the world, talks about givers gain. Thus, consider these principles when you consider your networking strategy.

So, where should you go networking?

Often, in large organisations, most networking tends to be at industry events. It’s a chance to meet peers and contacts (often with a view to career enhancement!). But, this can also lead to excellent opportunities to unearth new suppliers and customers.

With SME’s, networking is often done through organisations like those mentioned above and it’s where smaller local businesses gather. However, that is not always the case and Chamber of Commerce, IOD and other regional events often have larger organisations and regional branches in attendance.

Don’t forget the opportunity to network at exhibitions, industry conferences, workshops, seminars, external training courses and awards ceremonies. These are all potential avenues. Even formal meetings with suppliers, agencies and institutions can be opportunities to develop relationships. If most of your business comes from the retail sector, find out what events and opportunities exist in that area.

Also, don’t totally dismiss things like school, church, social and sports clubs and other more social gatherings. I had an opportunity to quote recently on a marketing project for a large healthcare company based on chatting with a squash opponent. Please don’t consider these as sales opportunities in an aggressive manner though. Remember what they are. However, I have certainly gained opportunities by chatting with people in a more relaxed environment by asking questions about them.

So, don’t just focus on the formalised networking activities. Every outing is a potential to network so be ready in terms of cards and anything else you might need. Dependent on the type of activity, I may have my cards (which detail what services we offer on the back!) or a presenter detailing our services and approach in case I get into a more detailed discussion.

A word if you work in larger organisations. Remember other departments have people with whom you can network. They have contacts that could potentially be valuable so don’t forget to get to know colleagues outside of your area.

Don’t just think about sales

Networking isn’t just about getting new business. It could also help you amongst other things to:

  • Reduce your costs through new suppliers
  • Provide better service for a client by recommending others
  • Gain bigger clients through working in collaboration with networking contacts
  • Generating additional income if appropriate by taking a margin on other’s services
  • Improve your knowledge on a subject through new ideas or formal events
  • Find resellers for your service
  • Find new employees.
  • Get feedback on your services and reputation.
  • Learn about the competition.
  • Understand your marketplace better.
  • Test new ideas on others.

But it is a new business route

Ultimately, most people network because it brings opportunities for new business. Small businesses especially rely on networking due to the inability to afford large marketing budgets. Therefore, like other channels, you need a strategy. Remember that networking is to some extent:

  • A numbers game where you meet people and filter those that you want to meet again and do business with.
  • A way to build a pipeline of both prospects and useful contacts.
  • A means of creating warmer leads than other marketing channels as you can use your personality.
  • Gives you an opportunity to up-weight your profile amongst your peers and gives them someone to view as an expert

What’s the best strategy to employ?

First, consider your circumstances. How much time can you afford? Where are you located? When would you like to network? Morning, afternoon or evening? What style of networking suits you? Do you want a broad networking group or industry specific? All have merits and disadvantages.

Do your research. Consider where the best groups might be for you and visit them. You can normally visit 2 or 3 times at the formal networking groups before having to join. Choose wisely since it can become expensive and not feasible to attend every single group.

Really concentrate when you meet people. How often have you met someone and forgotten their name almost immediately. Take their business card. Look at it and try to use their name early so it embeds e.g. ‘that’s interesting Mary. I had a similar situation…’

Set yourself goals, such as making three good network contacts at an event. If it’s a formal networking event, listen carefully to people’s presentations and then decide who you want to chat with. After the formal bit, go and talk to them.

Importantly, you must remember that it is not just about increasing your own network. You can become a link to introduce other people if you know them and also take details for your clients or suppliers. That way you are being a gatherer and people will think highly of you for thinking of them. It may not have any immediate benefit for you, but they say what goes around comes around and they will feel more positively inclined to look out for leads for you if they feel you are supporting them. The more you become a resource, the more people will come to you.

Ask open-ended questions (e.g. how do you do that? Why is that the case? What does that mean for you?) that require more than a simple yes or no for an answer. Remember to listen to the answers! Use your two ears rather than one mouth. People love to talk about themselves so listen to them. Don’t let them monopolise you but avoid the temptation to butt in or only talk about yourself. If it is getting boring, politely move on. I find that a simple sentence such as ‘John, it has been really interesting talking to you, I guess we need to do some more networking’ generally doesn’t attract any disapproval and allows you to move on. If you genuinely plan to meet up again, don’t forget to say ‘let’s chat next week and get together for a coffee’ before you leave.

Prepare

Do your research about the event and the people you’ll be meeting. What kind of an event is it? Remember that you are there to network so go with an objective in mind. If the guest list is available, take a look and decide who you want to network with. Find them or ask others if they can point them out.

If you are uncomfortable networking, the more you prepare the better. Consider what makes your business different and what makes it better than others. Find a good opening line and practice. Sadly, few people really listen and you have limited time to make an impact. So, not only research attendees and seek them out, also, think about what you want to say to them. For example:

  • Your opening line could reference recent work that you suspect that they may be interested in
  • You could reference a competitor or some industry issue e.g. new regulations
  • Ask them a pertinent question

The main thing is to find an immediate frame of reference. I like to ask them to kick off. A simple ‘nice to meet you, what do you do?’ normally suffices for me. I then like to consider very quickly what my frame of reference might be based on their answer. But do remember, this isn’t meant to be some Machiavellian ploy or plot. It is intended to allow them and you to find common ground and enjoy the chat to unearth potential opportunities at a later stage in a future conversation.

If you have difficulty in situation such as these, consider getting some coaching. Even if you are a coach, that doesn’t necessarily mean you area good networker! So watch and listen to others and how they do it.

Follow-up

The method of follow-up is changing. Always follow up on business cards you’ve collected as well as referrals and suggestions. Not every one will pan out, but the people who network best are the ones who follow up. Collecting business cards isn’t even half the job!

I find that the phone is by far the most important tool for follow-up and for new business generally. Calling good contacts after the event and meeting for coffee is crucial. It shows you were genuinely interested. Make sure you then utilise tools such as Linkedin to maintain contact. Be careful not to simply add people to your mailing list or newsletter if you haven’t asked them or genuinely developed a relationship. But do make sure you don’t simply hoard cards. I send Linkedin invitations immediately after the event.

The final element to consider is social networking. The purpose of this document isn’t to promote social networking per se. However, it would be foolish to ignore this. Linkedin has a huge number of groups and forums as do networking organisations such as 4Networking. Don’t forget to use these and to contribute to discussions and forums. Engage with people especially those you meet offline. Use online networking to enhance your personal network and find opportunities to meet at events in order to embed the relationships. Use online as a means to embed and enhance the relationship and vice versa.

If you follow these tips, then networking will be more enjoyable and more profitable!

Networking checklist

1.Recognise that networking is marketing for your business.

It is important to consider networking as a channel or route to market for your business. Don’t think of it as something separate to work or somewhere from where you have to rush away to ‘get back to work’. People buy people. They do business with, and refer business to, those people they like and trust.

Business Networking is therefore about finding other business people where there is common ground and with whom you can build relationships. Do not expect immediate payback. Networking takes time and effort. Consider how much time you can devote and focus that time. Be realistic. Don’t expect to turn up at an event or stick your profile on a social networking site and come away with business. Networking has ‘work’ at its heart and you need to consider it as work.

2. Plan your approach

It is often said that if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. This is also true for networking.

Consider what you want from networking. Are you looking for suppliers as well as customers? How much time do you want to devote to networking? How much business would warrant your attendance every week or month? What would represent success?

Who do you want to network with? What kind of businesses would be most likely to pass referrals or business to you? Consider where these people might go to network and go to visit these types of groups, events and activities.

Don’t forget that it isn’t just formal groups. You have lots of options not least including:

  • The IOD
  • Chamber of Commerce
  • BNI, 4Networking
  • Other local groups
  • Events, exhibitions, conferences and the like
  • Industry forums and conferences
  • Social and sports clubs and home activities
  • Online forums like eCademy and Linkedin that have spin-off groups

Consider what your target market is. What are the problems you solve for them? What’s new in your sector? How can you be a provider of information and knowledge for contacts?

At each event, have a look at the attendee list, if available, and plan who you’d like to speak to. If you don’t know them, ask the organisers on the day or other people you know who might know them.

It goes without saying that you should bring with you sufficient cards to cater for the type of event. Some ask you to pass your cards around the attendees. Some do speed networking sessions. Others are more reserved and you won’t need so many.

Bring a small notebook if you want to jot down important things or if your memory isn’t as good as it was. Use the back of people’s cards if you want to note specific points relating to them.

3. Who do you know already in your sphere of influence?

Ask their advice. Where do they go? Who do they know? Network with them on and offline. Provide useful information for them. This could be colleagues, friends, customers and suppliers. Invest time to foster these relationships. Meet them and identify what you can do to help them. Ask them who they can introduce you to.

4. Participate

If you are serious about networking, elevate your profile by participating. Become involved in the network. Take a role on a committee to increase your visibility. Give talks or presentations on a subject you feel comfortable with. Volunteer for things. The chances are that the more visible and supportive you are, the more your peers will come to you and find ways to support and refer you to others. Be a giver not a taker.

5. Talk less and listen more – Don’t judge

Use your ears more than your mouth. By all means give input and advice and impart knowledge. But know when to do so. Listen to others and they will trust you and refer you more.

Whilst there must be a limit, people love talking about themselves so try to listen to them. That way you can find out their needs. If you’re stuck with a bore that doesn’t ask you any questions, consider a time limit and then nicely say that you both need to do some more networking and it would be unfair to hog each other’s time.

I was recently given some good advice by a friend. I asked him what his best tip for networking was. He said “Don’t judge a book by its cover – you never know who he or she might be or what influence they might have”

He went on to explain that recently he had the ‘misfortune’ to be standing next to a scruffy unpleasant guy who he didn’t particularly like the look of. Apparently, no-one else wanted to engage with him as they all left him quite quickly and my friend found himself alone with this chap. He told me that he stayed quiet and listened. After quite some time with the person talking about himself, my friend asked him what he did for a living. He was Head of Purchasing for a very large household name international food company.

6. Avoid the temptation to over-sell

Related to the point above but this is where you become the bore. We’ve all been to events where we’re stuck with someone who talks about ‘me me me’ and doesn’t ask any questions. Don’t become that person. Develop a healthy interest in others. Ask good open questions. When asked about your business, by all means answer but make it interesting for the other person. And don’t drone on and on. Practice what you want to say to describe your business and make it so that they want to hear more.

Personally, I don’t give my card out to everyone I meet. I like to give it some value. So I will wait until the conversation has developed and I can ideally identify someone or something of use for the other person. Once I’m able to do this I will ask for their card. I will only offer mine if they ask for mine. This makes sure that most cards I get are valid and that I don’t spray my cards about for them to end up in the bin.

7. Follow up

This is often the most overlooked factor in networking. How often have you looked in a drawer to find a mound of cards from past networking events? It is to some extent a numbers game and not all contacts will become lifeline friends or associates. However, networking is similar to sales in that you need to build your network and it is about numbers to a point.

So, take the cards and details of those you really enjoyed meeting. Jot down on the card the date and location where you met them. Make contact by phone or email within a few days and set up a time for coffee or another chat to solidify what you discussed at the event. Invite them on Linkedin, Facebook or eCademy.

Don’t let the work you put in at the event go to waste especially with those you found interesting.

8. Communicate with your network

This is often forgotten. Follow-up should be ongoing. Once again, you can’t do this for everyone. However, online channels now allow you to communicate more regularly with people you’ve met. Nothing substitutes for face to face or a call. However, that isn’t always practical. Therefore, use online networking tools to keep in touch. Groups such as 4N have online forums. If you’ve written something ‘genuinely’ useful and interesting, send people a note via an online group or direct by email. Point people at your blog. It is important to keep on the radar of your contacts without swamping spamming or stalking them. Networking is also a filtering process by which you develop strong relationships with some and periodic relationships with others. These are enhanced each time you meet again.

Use online networking tools to build your network and to maintain contact.

9. Work for your network

The philosophy of BNI is ‘givers gain’. You might change this to what goes around comes around. Ultimately, you want to be the person that people come to for advice and contacts. Therefore, consider who you can recommend. Who can you connect others to? Strong networkers are generally those that give a lot. They then receive in return. Re-tweet their tweets. Forward a link to their blogs. Make a recommendation / testimonial of their work. Refer them to people looking for their services. Call your personal contacts and suggest they meet your best networking contacts.

You don’t have to become a networking junkie or zealot to make networking work for you. But you do have to remember to be a gatherer not a hunter.

10. Go back for more

As I mentioned at the outset, networking is work. It isn’t a one hit thing. Find the networking opportunities that work best for you and fit your style. If you’re too tired in the morning, go to an evening event. If you’re tired after a long day, try a lunch. Consider location too. If you’re outside London and the event is in London, decide whether you can afford the time. However, set your goals and decide and commit to whatever you do. Networking is a discipline and something you have to continue with. Make it part of your sales and marketing strategy and it will work for you.

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