Let’s begin by clearing up a common misconception, networking is not about selling. The most common issue I find is that people & companies expect to see an immediate ROI from their networking activity because they believe it is about selling.
Factor in that most people do not like being sold to there is a real disconnect.
Networking is about building and maintaining relationships, both personal and corporate. It’s about sharing contacts and knowledge without any expectation of anything in return, it’s about seeking out win/win situations and building social capital. For more on this read ‘Return on Relationships ‘ by Ted Rubin.
A definition I like is as follows: ‘Networking is any activity that increases the value of your network and/or the value you contribute to it.’
Something else to consider: we all network every day without always being aware of it. Networking takes place whenever we engage with people be it at the shops, the gym or sports club, or the school gate.
Social media is networking in the virtual world and is equally important but more of that later.
There are various reasons to network but the 2 primary ones are Business development and career enhancement.
Business development is traditionally focused on sales (new business acquisition/ client wins) and measured in these terms. However, business development should be looked at in terms of creating a more profitable and sustainable business. Given that people are averse to being sold to why the emphasis on sales and selling?
Dare to be different and look at why people buy and why would they buy from you?
People buy for 2 fundamental reasons: gain pleasure or avoid pain (sometimes both). Which reason do your product or service match?
To buy from you they will need to answer 3 questions: do they perceive you to be competent (better still an expert), do they perceive you to have integrity and most important of all do they like you? The last point is crucial and often overlooked or dismissed, and yet in most instances is the primary reason to buy from an individual or company. most people know the expression ‘people buy people’ but it should be extended to ‘people buy people they like’. To understand more about this read ‘The Likeability Factor’ & ‘Love is the killer app’ by Tim Sanders.
Networking allows you to build a relationship with your potential and existing clients so that they like you enough to buy from you assuming they perceive you to be good and have integrity. Not everybody is going to like you as in turn you will not like everyone you meet. It is a waste of time and effort trying to force the issue and if you insist you will end up with a difficult working relationship that will not help either party.
Your existing clients will buy repeatedly from you and recommend you to others which is priceless. Remember it is 5 times as expensive to gain a new client than maintain one.
It is also essential to build a network of contacts who will refer clients to you (professional service providers) as this is far more effective than the traditional sales model.
In terms of career enhancement networking is king as many positions never get advertised. In the first instance companies will look within their networks for suitable candidates or will utilise head hunters. Either way, are you on their radar? LinkedIn is the first place they will look. Most people look to build a network after the event (redundancy etc) while the smart people have a vibrant network to fall back on. I would recommend getting on the radar of companies that you would like to work for and have the relationship in place. Get to events that they attend and bump into them and engage with them via social media. As a result, if and when you need to approach them you are better placed. People who network effectively tend to get head hunted more than people who don’t.
Strategy is key whether networking for business development or career development.
Because networking is time-consuming and involves cost, make sure that you are networking in the right place. Too many people adopt a scatter gun approach and consequently become disillusioned when they do not see immediate results. Remember it’s a long term strategy with an 18 month period between initial contact and working together being not uncommon.
Work backwards and identify clients that you want or companies that you would like to work for. Be realistic and ruthless, can they afford you, will they be fun to work with etc.
Next, work to get on their radar in order to start building a relationship. Research at this stage is essential, what events do they attend? Most sectors have specific networking events and are essential if you are aiming at a specific sector. Aim to attend the right events and leverage an introduction and always follow up immediately. I attended a conference with the specific aim of meeting Diane Burke who was then the Marketing Director at GWR who is now a valued member of my network.
My planned book addresses this specific subject.
Seek them out on social media and engage with them. My first contact with The Massey Partnership was via Twitter and they are now a valuable member of the Samphire Club.
It is also important to establish a group of super connectors who will help open doors for you and professional advisors who can do the same. Super connectors can be found in the following sectors: journalism, hospitality, PR, charity fund raising to name a few.
Start with your own sector or tribe to ensure that you know the key players and are known as an expert yourself. Don’t fear competitors, seek to engage with them and share your knowledge as you have similar issues. Remember that there is always enough work to go around and some people will not work with you because the chemistry isn’t right.
If you want to work with clients in a specific sector target those events and aim to become a familiar face on that circuit. This can result in credibility via familiarity. Aim to speak at events and contribute to the debate. Conferences are great places to meet senior decision makers.
If you have specific companies or individuals that you want to meet research is essential in order to discover which events they attend.
Look within your network for people who can introduce you or ask the event organiser.
Award ceremonies are also great opportunities to network and remember the best opportunities are often very late in the bar.
Finally consider arranging your own networking events which gives you greater control of the outcome.
Although it is important to build networking into your daily schedule remember that networking is a state of mind and aim to be always open to opportunities. Embrace serendipity and have business cards with you all the time. Strike up conversation and see where it may lead.
I recommend 10 minutes minimum 3times a day to cover social media but again be strategic (use Twitter lists) and engage on LinkedIn.
How much time you commit to networking events will depend on your other commitments but it should be a central part of your business development strategy and the culture within your organisation.
Some tips to finish:
Embark upon a learning Safari, read books and blogs, listen to Ted Talks and seek knowledge. Remember that everybody has something to learn and everybody has something to teach.
Be curious: take an interest in the people that you meet and ask yourself the following, what and who do I know that will help this person.
Be memorable: impressions are vital, people will not remember what you said or did but crucially they will remember how you made them feel.
Most importantly, be nice and be prepared to ‘pay it forward’.