Of all the business growth strategies that I teach, networking probably has one of the biggest divisions in opinion as to whether it works or not. Many business owners get a large proportion of their business through their networks, others do lots of networking but don’t get much out of it, while others don’t do any networking at all because they don’t see the benefits of it, or feel uncomfortable ‘selling themselves’ in a group environment.
Networking may not be suitable for all types of business, particularly those that operate in highly specialised, niche markets, but for most businesses that sell to other businesses or the public, I would always recommend networking as being one element you should consider incorporating in your overall marketing strategy.
The first thing to remember is that it’s called netWORKING, not netLUNCHING – as a business owner, you always need to invest your valuable time wisely and keep your eyes on the prize. Your focus at networking events should be on business, not just on having a jolly! The key to successful networking is to have clear goals for what you want to achieve from your networking activity, and a plan of action for how you are going to achieve those goals.
Like any marketing campaign, the first thing you need to take into consideration when planning your approach to networking is your Target Market. Once you know what prospects you are interested in meeting with, you can identify what networking groups will be best to help you make contact with them. Don’t forget though that it’s not necessarily the people in the room that are the ones you will want to target. Look for groups of people that are likely to know, be customers of, or suppliers to your target market and who can introduce you to them.
The second thing to remember is that networking is NOT a sales pitch. As with any marketing strategy, your goal is education and communication – you should attend these meetings to talk to people about what you do and what sets you apart from other suppliers. (And to actually listen to what they do, too!) Remember, this is the start of your sales process, not the end. There is nothing worse than coming across the network seller at a meeting, who tries to force their wares on you. Even if you have a need for what they’re selling, it is unlikely that you will buy from them at the first meeting.
Your sales process should have 4 clear steps, as identified by Tom Hopkins in his book “Sell it today, Sell it now”. First you have to build a sufficient level of TRUST appropriate to the product/service you are selling, and the higher the value, the higher the level of trust needed. Then you identify if the prospect has a NEED for what you are selling, then you show them you can HELP them and finally you can HURRY them to the next step of your sales process.
At a networking event, you can only really deal with the start of step 1 and 2 of this 4 step process. In his book “The Jelly Effect,” Andy Bounds says, “the only goal of networking is to arrange coffee meetings with people that might be able to help you reach your personal and business goals.” If this is the case, then why would you not want to network? Or are you not clear on what your goals actually are?
So step 1 of your selling process is to build trust, and this can be done in many way. Hopkins defines being perceived as trustworthy by someone as being appropriate, credible, competent and having something in common. Appropriateness comes down to people’s perception of you and how it matches to what you are saying. They will get this perception from your non-verbal communication, e.g. what you wear, your body language and your business cards. If these do not marry up, then they will sense something is amiss, and you will not gain their trust.
The best way to show credibility and competency is to give examples of what you have done, or can do. Giving people FREE help and advice will not only show how good you are, but also help you tap into the “Law of Reciprocity” – if I do something for you, you will feel obliged to do something for me, or as it is sometimes known, “Giver’s Gain.”
Commonality can be the hardest or easiest part of the trust building process – finding something you have in common with a complete stranger can be a struggle! But the fact is, people buy from people they like, so the easier you find it to make friends, the easier you will find this part. However, relationship building is a skill like any other, and with a bit of learning and practice, anybody can become a first rate relationship builder. The iconic book on this topic is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, and is a must read for anybody in business.
As I said earlier, networking is only the start of your sales process. Assuming you have met a few people, collected some business cards and possibly even arranged a few coffee meetings, this is not the end of the process. Like all successful marketing campaigns, the best results are obtained with great follow up.
I would recommend investing in a good Contact Relationship Management (CRM) System – there are many low cost solutions nowadays, and some are even free. After every event, put your new leads into your CRM system and task yourself to make contact with them at some point in the future. Warm leads need following up soonest, while the colder ones can be warmed up over time. As you put them into the system, think of what you could do to help them and then when you find something, you have the perfect excuse to contact them again.
So now you can see that networking is actually more a process than an art, and there are skills that you can be learned, even if you’re not a “people person.” So why not get into ACTION and become a skilful networker?