I’ve been in the sales business for 30 years, and during only 50% of that time I have networked my socks off. Don’t make the mistake I made by not learning the techniques and skills I now practise daily to maximise the value I gain from speaking to strangers.
I am not particularly comfortable in approaching individuals already in conversation in a strange place; is anyone? But I have learned that there is great value to be taken from targeted networking activities. With a little gumption I can learn a great deal, have a better time and ultimately make faster progress. Indeed today more than ever before I value networking to break into more ambitious potential partnerships. I am certain my investments gain from my tactical positioning; being in the right places to meet the right senior people. Ambitious, targeted networking might give your business possibilities the great leap forward.
In the past I did not give enough time and effort to “networking” opportunities. I still had to brave entering male dominated environments, often a mass of power-suited strangers deep in conversation I would make my way to the coffee table before taking a deep breath and making a brave step towards an equally nervous looking individual. How wrong I have been.
When engaging correctly, networking can be beneficial for your business and for your career. Who knows what opportunities might arise through your connections to fellow business owners and people both within and outside of your sector. If you don’t ask, you won’t get, but equally show and interest in someone and you’ll be surprised by how much we all have in common.
Here are my tips for getting the best from networking:
- Do it! It can be intimidating to approach a stranger, but like most things it gets easier if you stick at it. It won’t get any easier if you avoid networking because it makes you nervous. Keep pushing yourself to network whenever possible, and it will soon become second nature.
- Don’t wait for an event. You don’t need to be at an event specifically for networking in order to network with people. Make conversation on the train, in the coffee shop, wherever you are. And don’t discriminate; I believe there’s always something you can learn from your next conversation, and it pays to be nice. See it as making connections for life rather than networking for business; you never know when one of the people you’ve chatted to might need your services, or mention you to someone else. I am amazed at some of the connections I make by engaging with strangers.
- Treat people as you would like to be treated. Networking events can often feel like a competition to see who can get rid of the most business cards, but that’s an awful way to go about trying to make genuine connections. Instead, make eye contact and actually engage with people. Smile, and keep smiling; show a genuine interest in what people are telling you and you will stick in their minds.
- Aim for groups of 3. We can only ever hold eye contact with one person at a time, so it’s easier to break into a conversation with the third person in a group. This priceless tip, tactic and activity should be shared with everyone who loathes entering a room of suited and booted strangers!
- Plan. Have a planned opening pitch or engaging sentence or question that shows interest in others. You then won’t find yourself struggling to come up with something. An open-ended question works best as it invites a response and a conversation.
- Look to give. Go into any conversation looking for a way to provide value, rather than looking for what you can get out of it. This will make you instantly more attractive to the people you approach.
- Have a conversation. Whatever you do, don’t go into it purely to sell your product or to pick up a new client. Show an interest and actually interact with people. You can find out a wealth of information just by chatting to people, but also be clear you are there to meet many not just a few. Learn to extract yourself politely.
- Have an exit strategy. If you’re talking to someone and they’re not your ideal client, or someone you can learn much from, have a pre-planned way to leave the conversation without being rude. At dedicated networking events people will expect to have a short conversation before moving on, so it can often be enough simply to say “it was nice talking to you” with a smile, suggesting you have someone else you wish to meet tactically, not that you need to go to the loo.
- Attend the right events. To me, every situation is an opportunity to network! If you’re just starting out and are going to dedicated networking events, choose carefully. You don’t need to go to every single one; ask around your existing contacts to see which events they find beneficial, plus aim to be in high places; you’ll meet more senior decision makers and likely influencers.
- Have an elevator pitch. At networking events the question everyone always asks is “what do you do?” Make sure your response is well thought out, short and to the point. Don’t wait until you’re asked to say “well, er, it’s a bit complicated but I sort of…” – nobody will be listening by the time you actually get to the point! Always start with how you improve, give value, save time or do something unique in your proposition and say it with passion and purpose.
- Ask questions. We all go to networking events to find potential new customers, but you can’t effectively do that if you’re just telling people what you do all the time. Ask questions of the people you meet. Again, these can be questions you prepare beforehand.
- Listen! If you’re asking a question, you really need to listen to the response and use it to decide what your next question should be. There is a terrible problem in modern conversations where we listen to reply, rather than listening to hear. This creates a massive disconnect where none of us really knows each other. Do not be afraid of making a memorable note on someone’s business card…then when you follow up you are more likely to be remembered.
- Remember the value of word of mouth. You might go to a networking event where nobody in the room is a potential customer but since you’re already there, you may as well chat to people. Remember that while you’re not looking to sell to this particular person, their friend/colleague/grandmother might be your ideal customer, and if you make a good impression they will pass your name on when the time comes. Carry marketing material, always.
- Don’t try and speak to everyone. If you’re at a small networking event, it can be fairly easy to work your way around the whole room – but if it’s a big event with lots of people, don’t even think about trying to talk to everyone. For one thing, when you get home you probably won’t remember any relevant information about the people you’ve met. Instead, target a few people to talk to, and really pay attention to those conversations.
- Take notes. Immediately after a networking event, make notes about the people you met. (I have sometimes simply marked a card A B or C.) If they gave you a business card, use it to note down where you met them and any relevant details. Everyone likes to be remembered and being able to ask a question relating to your previous conversations next time you meet them you will always impress.
Networking is important, not only for your current business but for anything you may go on to do in the future. Getting to know people both within and outside you sector will be of benefit for years to come. As well as this, if you’re running a small business on your own having a network of people in a similar situation can feel incredibly supportive. People who have been where you are will usually be only too willing to share best practices and advice – but you have to meet them and engage with them first.