“How can I be a more effective networker?” and “How can I make my networking more effective?” – These are such a frequent questions that I developed and regularly present a training course on the topic.
There is much in the popular press and some really good books on the topic (e.g. Networking – The art of making friends by Carol Stone) – however, often the books have a specific non-business aim – making more friends, feeling more confident in social situations and finding a new job. So I will answer the question assuming you want to use networking as a professional adviser (e.g. a lawyer, accountant or surveyor) who wants to generate more business. But bear in mind effective networking draws on a range of skills such as non verbal communication, active listening, rapport building and following up. Further details of these other skills are described in the book selling skills for professionals.
1. Understand the principles
It is just a tool. Networking is only one tool of many – it is unlikely to be effective on its own and if you really can’t do it then there are other methods that can help you achieve similar results.
Get your expectations in line. Networking is rarely a source of instant results – you have to make a concerted and continued effort to realise any payback. Networking can also be made much more comfortable if you remove the pressure of expecting to meet valuable contacts at events who will yield immediate results. Most effective networking takes place by putting other people together or providing information that has no short term benefit to you or your firm. Networking should be seen as a way to widen the pool of contacts (the start of a pipeline) and as a starting point for the development of long “courtship”. A sustained effort to maintain contact (perhaps through a marketing programme) will build familiarity, trust and knowledge with a new contact.
If you really don’t like meeting new people and semi-social events then choose another method to generate new contacts – otherwise you will communicate your discomfort unconsciously.
Networking is communication. It is about face-to-face and two way communication. This means it has uncontrollable variables. You must be prepared to deal with unexpected situations.
The basic principle is that each person has their own network – some small and some extensive. By enlarging your pool of contacts you increase your networking ability hugely – Because you connect with the networks of others. The following diagram may help:
Finally, networking is aimed at the ‘capturing’ end of the business development process. Have a look at the client relationship ladder (and/or any sales process or methodology) for information on moving contacts through the various levels.
2. Think about your aims
Networking can be used for personal reasons – to learn about people, about their businesses and their industries and to learn about life. It can help you build your network bank which could be used for future career opportunities. It can help you make connections with the ‘right sort of people’ (which you define!). And it is a way to have immense fun.
On the business side of the equation it can help you meet new clients, suppliers and referrers. It enables you to renew old acquaintances in a time efficient way. It can raise your own or your firm’s profile. It can help you collect valuable market and competitor intelligence.
But it can also be important to network within your own organisation. This is particularly important for those starting out in their professional careers – nurture the contacts you make as you move around the firm in your training seats. It is also a key tool to improve cross selling in larger firms.
Think about what you expect to achieve with your improved networking and remember that your specific aims should be dictated, in part, by a proper marketing analysis and marketing plan. Otherwise you are looking for needles in haystacks.
It is also important to think about networking amongst your existing clients and contacts – for example at a cocktail reception or seminar. This is a separatetopics – please contact me for details.
Obtain a list of attendees before you attend so you can be familiar with the types of individuals (and their organisations) you are likely to meet and this will help you prepare a few topics likely to be of interest. Ask your existing contacts or the organisers to help you identify and meet targeted people.
4. First impressions and introductions
Try not to make quick initial impressions about whether someone at an event is worthy of your attention (See material on perception in Selling skills for professionals). Sometimes people who look uncomfortable and remain on the periphery are there because they dislike the networking scene as much as you do. Introducing yourself, showing an interest and helping them to network further can help them feel more at ease and indebted to you.
The way you introduce yourself will have a big impact on the impression you create. Pronouncing your name and firm clearly (and with a smile) and providing conversation hooks are things that can be practised and rehearsed in a safe environment. Learning to introduce your colleagues (rather than yourself) provides the opportunity to offer much more information than when introducing yourself.
5. Practical tips when networking
Ideally, you should ‘hunt in a pack’ – networking should be done in pairs or groups as ‘lone’ guests always feel and look a bit distant. Working together means you are unlikely to be left alone and that you can more easily join other groups of people than if you were alone. You can also use the introduction of your colleague as a way to move on to other people.
Show interest. Most professionals feel inadequate at making small talk although they can rely on asking interested questions about other people’s views, roles, organisations and industries to keep the flow of conversation going. Various non-verbal cues can be used to show interest (see further information on verbal communication and active listening in the book).
Develop your memory. Many professionals worry that they will not remember names or points discussed at a networking event. Occasionally excusing yourself to write rapid notes on the backs of business cards or in your Palm Pilot – and at least immediately after the event will assist. There are various techniques that can be learned to help with memory improvement.
Learn to use NVC. Non verbal communication is a vital subject to help you understand more about other people and also to manage the impressions and meanings you convey. It is a vast subject in its own right – it is covered in the book and I run training courses on the subject.
Adopt a positive mental attitude. Neuro linguistic Programming (NLP – I have written articles on this subject) involves understanding whether people’s preferred mode of communication is visual, audio or kinaesthetic and then matching their style. It uses visualisation techniques to help people regain the positive feelings from good experiences to apply in new situations. There are other ways to encourage people to think positively before they attend a networking event and the positive mental state will be reflected within their subsequent more positive body language. In networking situations, people generally avoid those individuals who are giving off negative or uncomfortable vibes through their body language.
Enhance your conversational skills. Some professionals may feel inadequate at making conversation in social or semi-social situations because they feel they cannot make “small talk”. It is true that not everyone is a born raconteur who can keep an audience enraptured for hours but everyone can develop the confidence to make interesting conversations in any situation. There are various tips to assist and further information on the following is in the book: Focus on the positive, feel good about yourself, be sincere, don’t interrupt and use positive non verbal communication (this is a vast subject in its own right), avoid talking excessively about yourself, see opportunities to learn, provide conversational hooks, ask questions (questioning and probing techniques is another major skill area), make people feel important, listen carefully (active listening is another skill set), the elevator speech, “Givers Gain” and be interested rather than interesting. There are techniques for starting conversations and also techniques for closing either satisfactory or unsatisfactory conversations.
Offer low commitment follow ups. You will not always need to obtain a business card and asking for one without a clear reason is often met with suspicion (as is the unprompted offering of your card). Asking for a meeting or lunch appointment on the basis of a brief chat is unlikely to meet with success as it is too high commitment. Prepare a number of low commitment follows ups (e.g. “I think I saw an article on that recently – I could send it to you” or “My colleague would know about that, can I get him/her to give you a call?”) that will provide a reason to obtain contact details and implicit permission to contact the person later. It is also a good idea to have a range of things that can be sent to people met in this way shortly after meeting – without necessarily requesting a meeting at that stage.
6. Following up
Again, this is a vast area in its own right (the book has more information). In essence though, you need a system (such as a database or a Palm Pilot) to enable you to organise all the information you gather about networking contacts, what their interests are, when you last contacted them, what the next stage is (if you apply a sales process to the prime targets of your network) and when.
Other techniques that can aid selling and business development are described in my book “Selling skills for professionals“.
I do not restrict access to the FAQs but I politely request that you let me know by email and acknowledge the source (www.kimtasso.com) if you wish to use the material anywhere.
As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.