As a small business owner, you know that one of the essential responsibilities you carry is to drive new sales. You may have a hired sales person, you might partner with a marketing expert, but in a small firm the owner is almost always a key sales driver as well.
With that in mind, chances are you’ve spent more than your fair share of time at networking events and have experienced mixed results. Since networking is an essential (and, over time, highly effective) form of sales development, it’s critical to master key skills you can use to make your networking efforts more effective — and make your time spent at networking events more enjoyable too. Her are five key strategies you can begin using today:
1. You’re not the only one.
One of the greatest fears we all face is walking into a new event or group and not recognizing any of the faces. You stop at the beverage station for a moment, fiddle with your name tag, and then what?
First, remember that everyone else is in the same place as you. Sure, some people know each other already, but after all — this is a networking event, so presumably the point is for everyone to get to know *new* people. So with that in mind, take that leap and break into a circle or hold court at a table and introduce yourself to others. Chances are, you’ll find out that they were hoping someone would do exactly that, and voila! The ice is broken and you’re getting to know new people.
2. Where two or more are gathered…
Another way to overcome some of your natural hesitations (and potentially increase your effective reach) is to schedule with another business colleague to attend the same event. Plan ahead with someone who is a non-competing professional whose company you enjoy, and who would also benefit from attending. If you start the event chatting with one another, make sure to invite other people to join your circle, since you already have what others want (i.e. a comfortable connection with another attendee).
By starting with two and adding to the circle that way, you position yourself to meet new people while also avoiding some of the more daunting challenges of a networking event. In addition, if you and your friend part ways and work different sides of the room, you can always loop back after the program and discuss contacts each of you met who might be a good connection for the other.
3. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it built the business.
Remember that the key to effective networking isn’t selling or talking, it’s learning and listening. That having been said, not everyone falls into a networking conversation easily, so you might need to engage them proactively to have a good chat. One of the most effective ways to do so is to ask questions.
Sure, you can start with the most common ones like “What do you do?” and “What brought you over to this event?”, but plan carefully to move past that with genuine, enthusiastic questions about their business, and about them personally. Do they have pets? Do you have kids the same age? Maybe you both grew up in nearby home towns, or perhaps you have friends who went to the same college. Do you have similar sports interests or personal hobbies? No matter what it is, feel free to ask and engage so that both of you learn some interesting and memorable things about one another.
4. A pitch is good. A story is better.
At the same time, it is also important to discuss business and the key to success in this part of the networking conversation is to be succinct but engaging. A good way to do that is to master your ‘elevator pitch’ — that 30-second quick summary that tells the other person what you do, for whom, and why.
However, a better way to stand out might be to tell a story or set forth an example. Some people practice this approach with a ‘Did you know?’ statement, or with an “Imagine” story. For example, a wealth manager might open with “Did you know that 3 out of 4 small business owners will not have sufficient retirement savings?”. Or a financial planner might state, “Imagine if you knew that your future and that if your children was planned for, saved for and on the path to success.” These kinds of phrases help engage and ‘hook’ the other person and can add depth and value to your conversation.
5. Take the long view.
Networking is not a ‘grab-and-go’ activity, and the point is not to grab business cards, race to find sales, and close a deal tomorrow. Obviously, no one would mind if you do stumble upon a prospective opportunity right away, but that’s the exception and not the rule.
For the most part, networking success comes to those who take the long view, which means following up with each person you meet; arranging a one-on-one meeting; getting to know them further; inviting them to other events; and building that relationship over time. This is what leads to hidden sales opportunities, qualified referrals and a growing reputation. Some business organizations help systematize this through business referral groups and roundtables, where entrepreneurs join for a long-term commitment with precisely these goals in mind.
6. Hosting is the next step.
So you’ve been to events, you’ve met folks and you’ve been faithfully scheduling your one-on-one meetings as well. Now what? Well, the next step is to host your own event, program, workshop or meal. Bring your network together on its own, where you set the table and create that sense of community.
Being a host is perhaps the most powerful way to create energy and commitment among those you’ve met through networking over time. Breaking bread over a meal or experiencing a more intimate setting or activity are keys to creating a deeper bond and more loyalty among your colleagues and partners. And, when you host it’s your program so you can create exactly the kind of experience you know that you’d enjoy and appreciate.
What all six of these strategies have in common is a thread of enthusiasm about the overall goal of networking, which is to develop lasting and mutually beneficial business relationships. These people will become your colleagues, your partners and in some cases your friends. Make the commitment to a consistent networking (and network building) strategy today, and you’ll experience the fruits of that effort for many years to come.