By Derek Pedersen
Have you ever wondered why you should go to that industry related seminar or evening social event with a guest speaker?
It’s because networking is an essential part of building a business. Networking is an easy and often free strategy for marketing and sales opportunities, as well as connecting and building relationships with service providers for your business.
No one is born a natural networking pro, and most of us are apprehensive about networking, to say the least. Maybe you think you lack the “gift of gab,” to be a good networker. I’m here to tell you that being a “talker” has little to do with success in networking. In fact, it can be a detriment. For example, I attended a recent social media marketing conference where the conference organizers built many networking events into the conference schedule. At one of the networking receptions, a person approached our group. After telling us his name, he began a monolog about himself and his company (for what felt like a very long time). He then promptly excused himself to move on to his next target. Was this effective networking? Definitely not. Let’s look at why.
This particular interaction was a one-way communication and felt more like an advertisement or sales pitch. Networking is not about selling, it’s about building relationships, finding common ground, sharing information, learning new things and identifying opportunities. The interaction with this person accomplished none of the criteria for effective networking. In fact, at the present, I can’t even remember his name, company or what he was selling. The business cards he stuffed in my hand before departing were thrown away after the event with little thought. The most memorable part in this example was the uncomfortable nature of the interaction itself.
Below is a roadmap for making networking easy and productive. By following these simple tips and formulating your own networking plan, you will be sure to have success at your next networking event. You may even find yourself enjoying and looking forward to networking opportunities in the future.
Before we dive into the tips and developing a plan for networking success, let’s look at why networking is important. This should give us some incentive to put a little effort into honing our networking skills. (Already motivated? Skip to the Networking Tips and Networking Plan section below.)
- Friendship – Often overlooked perhaps because the “warm and fuzzy” nature of friendship doesn’t fit in well with the perception of business. The importance of maintaining a network of friends, however, should not be missed. Beyond the well-known emotional and psychological value of keeping you healthy, happy and motivated, there are other important benefits. Having a friend that works in your line of business, but with no direct business ties or competition, can have many positive effects. Having someone to bounce ideas off of, receiving & offering advice, having someone to listen to your successes, disappointments and complaints are a benefit. Perhaps most important is the experience and knowledge you can gain by listening to others’ successes and failures. This list can go on and on. The bottom line is that having good friends is important, but having great friends that are peers in your business space is invaluable.
- Relationships – This point may sound warm and fuzzy too but it’s not. This is all about identifying, building and maintaining business relationships. Depending on your market space this may mean tradespeople, designers, engineers, suppliers, prospects or customers. Anyone who contributes to the operation and success of your business falls into this category. Cultivating, expanding and improving upon this group will ultimately contribute to increasing your bottom line.
- Opportunity – Have you ever had a great opportunity come up from nowhere, and soon find out that it came from a past connection? These are feel-good events because they are unexpected and usually free. It’s easy to chalk this up to good luck, but in reality, it is cause and effect every time. Let’s face it, the best opportunities are shared between people outside of typical channels. So, make your own good luck by expanding your network in all directions.
- Learning – This one is all about you. Personal growth, knowledge, and experience are vital components to your long-term success. You can’t learn much by talking, but you can by listening and by asking questions. Whether it’s gaining key insights from customers in your market space, learning something technical from a supplier or getting a new idea from a peer, learning through networking will improve upon your most important asset, YOU.
- Breaking the Ice – By far, the biggest barrier for networking success boils down to one question. How do I break the ice? Whether you’re approaching an individual or breaking into a group of people talking, there are two things you must have. First, you must be confident. Second, you must be prepared with what you are going to say. If you are lacking in either, you are apt to fall flat right out of the gate. So, how do we ensure that we get beyond this critical first step?
- Coming across as confident is easy if you genuinely feel this emotion. Before you approach your networking prospect(s) make sure you stand tall, take a deep breath and remind yourself “I’m good enough, smart enough and doggone it people like me” – yes that is from a Saturday Night Live skit, and I use it because it makes me smile and it reminds me to be confident, both are good things. Seriously, affirmations work, so figure out what works for you. The good news is that once you have some success in breaking the ice, your confidence will come naturally, so eventually, this point may become irrelevant for you.
- Planning what to say when approaching an individual vs. approaching a group already engaged in a conversation is necessary.
- Establish Purpose– IF you are only networking because you think you have to or because you think it’s expected, you are setting yourself up for failure. You need to have a purpose, so figure out a networking goal for yourself. For beginners, start simple and easy such as meeting a potential customer or a peer. Then work your way up to more difficult goals.
- Share – Networking needs to be a two-way street. In addition to meeting your networking goals, you should do your best to see what you can offer your newly found connection.
- Exit Strategy – It’s inevitable that you will meet someone that won’t stop showing you pictures of the grandchildren. As cute as the kids may be, it’s not getting you any closer to your goals and since they are doing all the talking, you can’t offer any value either. In this case, it’s important to have an exit strategy. It’s also important to have an exit strategy so that you are not spending too much time with any one person even if the person you are talking to is a good connection. A good timeframe for mingling is normally 3 to 8 minutes. Here are some ideas to help keep you moving.
- Use transitional words such as “well”, “you know”, “gosh” to change the tone
- Depending on the interaction insert an appropriate comment like “it’s been nice talking to you” or “I’d like to hear more about that, maybe we can connect in the next few weeks” (use only if you really intend to connect)
- As a last resort, you can use a reason such as “I need to hit the bathroom” or “get a drink” but make sure you really go to or do what you say, so you retain credibility.
- Follow Up – Your networking efforts are lost if you don’t follow up. Take the time to make notes on business cards during the event, so that you are sure to remember important conversations. Send a note to recap your conversation and make a plan to meet again.
Develop Your Plan
Before your next networking opportunity, take the time to write up a simple plan. Here is an example of what your plan might look like.
- Name at least one goal for the networking event.
- Do some research on current topics, news or buzz in the industry. For example, you may ask “Are you incorporating green building practices in your homes? What are your biggest challenges for meeting new energy efficiency standards?” Be prepared
- Formulate your ice breaker. Give it a try and pay attention how it works for you so you can improve it each time. Write it down and practice delivering it in the mirror or to someone willing to listen and provide feedback.
- Prepare your exit strategy. Create a couple of options for breaking off conversation for both those that you would like to connect with again and those that do not fit in with your goals.
- Keep a networking journal that includes type, date and time of the event and a summary of your key connections.