Many people have a love-hate relationship with networking. We know we ought to do it, but its time consuming, a pain and wins seem rare. If that sounds like you, you’re probably a networking novice; unfamiliar with the finer points and techniques that can make networking a rewarding and profitable exercise.
Networking should be part of your lead generation repertoire, no matter what business you are in. A common mistake for people doing networking for the first time is that they are underprepared; not so much for the networking itself, but for what it takes to get to a point where business can be expected to be done. They tend to simply show up, try and make the most of the opportunity without understanding enough about what they are getting into and how best to deal with the follow-up activity required to make something of it. The result is that there is no result. So lets examine how best to make networking a real success.
Here are three common ‘no result’ networking scenarios:
- You introduce yourself to a number of people, grab their business cards and either never look at them again or quickly forget who the actual card owners were and their relevance to you, if any
- You meet someone you like or have things in common with and spend far too much time talking to them, with little or no prospect of an outcome
- You meet relevant people, get their details, attempt to follow up but somehow never manage to achieve anything beyond that.
These are just some of the things that can happen. Like any lead generation strategy, if you really want networking to work for you, you have to put some thought, focus and effort into it.
There are two levels networking operates at: primary and secondary. Primary networking refers to the activity of meeting people, with a view to doing business with them directly. Secondary networking refers to accessing the contacts of people you know or people you have met through your networking efforts.
There are basically two types of networking activities you can participate in:
- Join a structured networking organisation. This usually requires an ongoing commitment, but the structure and processes improve the odds of you achieving some level of success over a period of time. This sort of networking usually focuses on developing close relationships with people in the group. Whilst there is clearly a primary networking opportunity here, the much bigger opportunity is the secondary network. Whilst structured networking is certainly effective, it takes time to build trust before members will start to give you referrals.
- Attend ‘informal’ networking events. These events can vary tremendously in size and scope and the way they are organised. They usually have little or no structure and so it’s up to you to make it work. In this context, virtually any gathering of business people can be considered a networking opportunity. Unless you are a committed hermit, this is an opportunity too big to ignore. The rest of this article will focus on this type of networking.
But before we go any further, here are two basic networking realities that will shape the strategies you should use:
- Most people that you meet at a networking event that you may be interested in talking to further, will not remember you the next day unless you are specifically relevant to their needs at that moment.
- There is a high likelihood that your network target will receive a number of emails from other network participants the next day, so yours will not stand out. Even if this is not the case, with most people receiving a great deal of irrelevant email these days, your follow up email may not be read, or may not register with the reader
So what’s the best way to proceed? How can you make sure that the time you spend networking will yield results?
It’s best to prepare yourself well; have a plan. Make sure that each step of the plan is organised and in place beforehand, otherwise you will lose the initiative. Here are 7 points you need to have in your plan:
- Be clear about who would constitute a worthwhile networking “target”; industry, type of business, role within company etc. Choose events where your targets are likely to be found in concentration. Unless you have a good idea of who you are looking for and where to find them, you are likely to waste time and even confuse yourself as to the validity and value of some of the contacts you make
- Develop a ‘script’ that you are comfortable with and practise it. Include your elevator pitch and a few relevant questions to ask when you meet someone. This gets the conversation flowing and them talking, which relaxes them and makes them feel good. Without being rude, try and ascertain the degree of fit they represent to your target, i.e. qualify them. Qualify them for further follow up, that is
- Don’t spend too long with each person. The idea is to find as many qualified contacts as you can in the time that you have available, not to try and develop a relationship then and there, Relationship building comes later. Work the room, collecting business cards, where relevant, as you go
- On the business cards you collect make simple notes immediately. Write down pertinent points that you can then use as part of your follow-up. Ideally you should have a quality rating system, say a scale of 1-5 that will help you prioritise your follow-up
- If a contact looks relevant to you, ask them if it would be okay for you to contact them after the meeting. In this way when you you contact them, you can say “You said it would be okay for me to contact you” – makes it harder for them to fob you off or turn you down
- Immediately after the event, send them a handwritten postcard, expressing your pleasure in meeting with them and informing them that you will be in touch with them shortly. This will make you stand out from most of the other networkers they may have met; they will mostly send emails
- Next is to make contact with them. Preferably by calling them or by email. It is good to have a promise of something of value for them; this is sure to trigger some reciprocity, which you can use to move the relationship forward, culminating in a meeting where you can explore the opportunity with them further.
Unless there is an immediate and obvious fit, most chance encounters such as those one has at networking events, are not memorable enough for people to remember who you are, or care. For this to happen there should be several follow up contacts done in such a way as not to make yourself a nuisance. Working this all out before you go-a-networking, is a good way of bring consistency and results to your efforts.