Top 10 tips for successful business networking
According to Nielsen research, “92% of people will trust a recommendation from a peer, and 70% of people will trust a recommendation from someone they don’t even know.”
But if people don’t know who you are, what you do or how you can make a difference, how are they supposed to tell other people about it?
The more people you meet, the larger your network and the greater the odds of finding the best customers, services, products, partners, employers or employees that you want to find. At least that’s the theory.
For our CEO Emma-Louise Munro Wilson, networking events can feel like the first day of school all over again. “Just smile and introduce yourself” is not enough these days. Networking in business is both an art and a science, but few of us are naturals at it.
So whether it’s one on one conversations or selling to complete strangers with a snappy elevator pitch, here are a few tips I’ve learned to develop a strong and effective professional network when you’re just… not that good at networking.
1) Show up early.
Arriving early gives you a chance to get comfortable with your surroundings, find out where the toilets are and where refreshments will be served. Knowledge is power and that information can help you connect with others when they are desperately in need of a comfort break or caffeine. For those who thrive in small group conversations rather than large crowds, you can engage in more one-on-one conversations before the crowds roll in. Mainly, it gives you the luxury of time to make a good first impression before people are drowning in business cards.
2) Take your business cards.
Don’t be that person fumbling around in your pocket or purse saying “I don’t seem to have one with me” – it’s unprofessional. Don’t throw your cards around like confetti either – it suggests they’re disposable. Offering business cards is a trade, they have value so you should always get one in return. When you’re doing the trade, make sure you both know what the next action is to develop the relationship, e.g. “Could you email me your presentation?”, “If you send me an email, I’ll introduce you to *insert useful contact name here*”, “I’d really like to know more about your fantastic product/service/event, could you email me some more information?”, “Let’s set up a meeting to discuss how we can work together on XYZ, are you free sometime next week?”. Don’t treat cards like Pokemon either; you don’t have to catch ‘em all! If someone has given you their business card and it’s not clear why, don’t be afraid to ask them “How do you see us working together?” or more directly, “What are you looking for from me?”.
3) Have a “What can I offer?” mindset.
Stop thinking “I must talk to everybody” and start thinking “I have so much I can offer in terms of experience, knowledge and contacts”. You immediately have more confidence and feel more generous and in business that’s where the magic happens. All the time, be asking yourself: ‘What can I offer this person?’. Perhaps you can give them advice on certain topics or put them in touch with someone who’d be useful and further integrate and develop your network. By doing this you become a confident connector rather than a needy networker.
4) Set a goal to speak to a specific number of people.
Stick to your goal no matter what. If you say you’re going to speak to 10 people at a networking event then do it. You can always make it more entertaining by telling yourself that you’ll talk to five people wearing blue or that you will try to find out one interesting fact about everyone you meet, or that you’ll try to get as many subtle ABBA lyrics into a conversation as possible (my personal best on that is 12. Let me know if you can beat it!).
5) Be interested and then interesting.
A critical part of building any relationship is showing sincere interest in the other person. Don’t launch into an awkward elevator pitch for your business idea or job skills. Ask the person why they came to the event and hear their story. How did they break into the field? What’s been their experience on the job? What advice do they have for someone looking to enter the profession? If you feel comfortable, ask about their families or personal lives. Once you have formed an actual relationship with a networking contact, it will be much easier for you to talk about yourself and your ideas. They will be interested in you because you were interested in them first. Funnily enough, the more people talk about themselves, the more they feel they’ve built a relationship with you. Strange but true!
6) Be memorable.
Distinctive colours, ties, socks, shoes or accessories are classic ploys. One lady I met at a networking event had her recent achievements printed on the back of a shocking pink shirt. It was definitely memorable and we’ve worked together since. But it’s not just about what you wear, it’s about how you show up: One investment banker I met made it his mission to distil your job into a memorable one-liner…”So you’re the grand designs of office space then?” he said to me when I told him about Spectrum Workplace. “So you can mediate divorces nicely or rip the shirt off their back if I ask you to?” he said to the divorce lawyer sitting next to me. He became memorable because everyone wanted to know “what’s your one-liner from Barney?”. Interesting facts and stories are always useful. When people ask me “how did you get into marketing?” I always say “Well it started with a conversation in a pub where I told someone I could say my alphabet backwards faster than I could forwards…” You’d be amazed at how many people ask me to prove it and voila – memorable.
7) Have your elevator pitch ready.
A short concise version you can share about what you do, where you work, who your clients are and what your goals are. Don’t ramble and keep it to less than 90 seconds.
People are more likely to take action if they have parameters so be as specific as possible about the fields and job titles you want to pursue. By giving your contacts specifics, they can refer you to friends or companies who match what you’re looking for. I use this format for ease: “I specialise in… I work with… Helping them to… For example *insert recent success story*… Today, I’m looking for…”.
8) Log your contacts.
Do not let business cards languish at the bottom of your bag or fall out of your pocket or wallet. Schedule in 30 minutes within 24 hours of the networking event to add people to your address book, CRM system and/or LinkedIn. Record as much detail as possible. Personally I have the classic little black book which I staple business cards to, with details on where I met them, and anything memorable. I have little post-its with the event name and month as dividers so I can quickly refer back if I need to. It’s quite old school but the act of writing it down helps me remember information much better and really makes me think about if and how I can help people. LinkedIn is, in effect, my digital rolodex.
9) Follow up.
If you really want to build a networking relationship, don’t send a generic “nice to meet you at such and such event” email. Send them something useful whether it’s a link to an interesting industry report, or a blog you wrote about 6 killer interview questions, the 20 app names you thought of on the journey home, a list of free social media tools they may find useful, an offer to virtually introduce them to someone who might be useful to them, an invite to an event. Whatever it is, always think about how you can be adding value to them. Relationships should be mutually beneficial.
10) Don’t just connect.
Build solid relationships and don’t expect overnight miracles from networking. It takes time for people to develop confidence in you and you in them, and you need to invest in those relationships. As networking guru Keith Ferrazzi says “every free moment is a chance to email or call someone” I always respond to questions I receive on LinkedIn about my blogs, I always send people a happy birthday message on LinkedIn and I engage with my contacts’ content where appropriate. It doesn’t always have to be about work though; I send a lady I met at an event recently a new word every day via Facebook because we both love learning new words like Petrichor, which is the smell of the earth when it rains. Essentially networking is about building real relationships, actively maintaining them, and above all giving as much as you take.