When you start a business, everyone says networking is important; so you network. But are you getting more out of your networking than passable plonk and the occasional first-class canapé? Have your efforts delivered a strong network that adds value to your business?
Successful networking is about more than turning up to grip-n-grin for an hour or so. That’s for weddings and next-door’s BBQ. The point of networking is to build mutually beneficial, integrated alliances (with the right partners), and to raise your own status. For start-ups and small businesses, where one-on-one relationships and personal contacts drive word of mouth business, this is especially important.
For your networking to bring benefits, you need to plan and prepare; winging it won’t do. You need to be in the right places, making the right first impression in front of the right people. And you need to know in advance what your follow-up strategy will be.
Attend the right networking events
There are plenty of networking events, but even if you had the time, you shouldn’t accept every invitation you receive. However, it can be tricky working out when to attend and when to tidy your sock drawer.
For high-priced industry conferences, do some research: talk to participants from previous years, Ask if they felt the event was worth the investment of time and money. Ask about the contacts they made: how many, and how useful?
For local events (networking breakfasts, lunches and happy hours), you should combine industry-specialised events and greater business community events, ensuring that you don’t cast too wide a net. It’s important, especially for SMEs, to balance industry contacts with a strong, diverse geographic network for maximum exposure and relationship building.
Practice your proposition
Avoid being tongue-tied; you should never be fumbling for words, and preparation prevents awkward silences.
First, master a one or two-line proposition in advance. This should sum up who you are, your previous experience, and what you do as it relates to the contacts you’ll meet at the upcoming event. When forming this proposition, remember not to use the word help. You don’t help people. You work with people: work with implies a fee.
You should also be looking to include things clients want more of (money, time, etc) and things they want less of (effort, mistakes, etc). For example, you might work with family businesses to unlock sustainable profits and avoid costly mistakes.
With your proposition practiced and polished, think of icebreaker questions you can ask. For example: What brings you to this event? How is business? If you’re not sure what questions to ask, think of the questions that would allow you to talk about the information you want to get across. Ask those questions and it’s likely they’ll be asked back, or there will be an opportunity to say your piece while you chat.
And remember that a conversation develops, and be willing to move on when appropriate.
Identify your networking opportunities in advance
Tom Cruise is well-known for spending a great deal of time at movie premieres talking to fans, but even Tom Cruise can’t talk to everyone. At a networking event, you need to be selective with your time. Too many brief contacts can result in you failing to make a memorable impression on anyone. The room is there to be worked, but much of this work should be done beforehand.
As an example, consider an industry conference. The organisers will likely publish a list of attendees in advance, and this should be given some critical study. Which name would you most like to have a conversation with (not just meet)? Does anyone on the list fill a gap in your network?
Do your research and identify the half-dozen companies and/or people with whom you most want to connect with. Make this wish-list the focus of your networking, and avoid getting stuck chatting to the guy who hands out the name badges.
Ask great questions
Networking is like fishing; and questions are your bait. Consider why each person you talk to should care about you, your business, and the conversation you’re having. Through great questions, and by being interested in the answers—in other words, really listening—you may learn something unexpected, such as new business challenge. The better you become at asking questions, the better you’ll become at making connections between the people at an event and other the people already in your network.
The aim of every conversation is to walk away having allowed the other person to speak more than you did. They feel positive about the interaction, and you’ll receive valuable insights into what the other person does, who their valuable contacts are, and how you could best work together in the future
However, you also want to have provided them with enough information about you for them to be able to recommend who else you should speak to. That may turn out to be your most important question.
Master the follow-up
Networking doesn’t end when an event closes. As soon as you can, make notes about each person you spoke with (and ensure that the business cards you collected are filed, not just stored). Within 48 hours, follow up on each conversation. Using your notes, write a short, personalised email that references something you spoke about. If there is a contact you can introduction to them, do so. And if they suggested someone you should talk to, as for an introduction.
That email is an important first step, but don’t let this new relationship linger online. Connecting on LinkedIn doesn’t mean your work is done. Find a way to stay in touch in the real world, and nurture this new connection with person-to-person meetings every few months. Face-to-face discussions can result in faster and more productive interaction than online communication.
This article has been written by ByteStart’s regular business management and strategy contributor, William Buist. William is a Business Strategist, Speaker, and founder of the exclusive xTEN Club – an annual program that helps business owners to accelerate growth, harness opportunity and build their business.