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Networking – in its purest form – doesn’t include hard selling; for the most part, it’s about sharing knowledge and extending professional circles, but through the decades people have made it mucky, something to be derided and worst, something to be avoided. Meeting more people means more potential partners, referral sources or just people who are good to know in case the worst happens. If you treat networking with disdain you’ll never get the most out of it and in this job market, a small network can be a big mistake.
Firstly, bring the right kit with you. Bring a pen, business cards, a good handshake, a phone, mints and a good attitude. People like business cards, you can write on them, and the phone is if you want to show someone something or go the direct contact route. The handshake is firm but not painful, just enough to let the other person know you are an adult. The mints are for you and something to offer – no one likes six-hour coffee breath mixed with white wine.
Secondly, decide what you want to get out of networking – if it is new business leads, think about your approach. There may be a more direct route, or you may need to hone your approach as people’s guards are up as they are looking for the sell. Tread carefully.
Third, if you’re there, be there. Don’t wait around the corner of the room. Get on with it, set yourself a target and leave when you’ve hit it. The best phrases to use are “May I join you?” and “What brings you here?”. If you’re not confident, the best thing to do is ask easy questions and listen before you offer up something.
Most questions at networking functions can seem salesy, but there are a few that can jumpstart a conversation or push it to different places:
‘Where do you see [topic/area/field] going in the future?’
‘If you were the CEO, what three things would you change? Why?’
‘What’s the one thing you would do if you knew that you could not fail?’
‘Is there anyone you recommend I meet while I am here?’
Here is the tricky part, testing to see if there is a legitimate reason to keep talking or if you’re in danger of just having fun. Both are fine, how you handle both is not the same. If you find a natural pause in the conversation, decide to exit or stay in the conversation. If you need to exit, say it was good to meet the person or that you need to find someone before you leave.
A good tip is always to see if the other person needs something so that you can direct the correct person to that person if you find them. The best advice is not to pound the free wine to get out of a conversation – that helps no-one. Everyone knows that good networking isn’t easy, but if you focus on meeting the right people and not just seeing everyone as cattle to push through the factory, you’ll change your strategy and tactics.
Let’s say, you have found someone with a legitimate interest in what you do, and you sense business might be possible. What’s next? Firstly, relax, you don’t have to close them then and there. Decide together what makes sense, a call, an email or more talking then. If you go for the latter, you can do more checking but don’t forget there may be other prospects. If you are there to find clients, it’s ok to ask questions, meet new people and listen.
Finally, the key to networking is considered follow up. Whether a polite email, LinkedIn request, call or something more formal, don’t ever lead with a sales pitch. Instead, build the relationship. You may want to remind them what you are looking for so they can refer people into you. Just don’t send them percentages and legalese. No-one likes that person. The most important part is to show willing and email with something of interest. Be memorable but don’t kill yourself. Short and simple but be clear about the future, no-one likes guessing or feeling like they can’t email a person.
Networking apps like Opportunity, Shapr, Bizaboo, Causr, Grip, Bumble Bizz, might also work to expand your network and generate leads. Download a few and see what works for you. As with in-person events, avoid being salesy and canned responses. People can spot a copy and pasted blurb a mile away. It’s tempting but don’t be that person, treat people as you’d expect to be treated and be bold.