You know you should. Whether business is good, business is bad, you are just starting your business, or are just looking to stay current in the trends, gossip, and insights of your industry; when the invitation to a networking event lands in your inbox – you vow that this time will be different. And then when the date comes for the event, you are suddenly too busy to go.
Your fear of not knowing what to say, who to say it to, your introverted personality, or a whole host of other obstacles jumped up and prevented you from actually participating.
What it is NOT
A quality networking opportunity is one where you exchange business opportunities with others. It is NOT:
- A social hour – the small talk, catching up with friends, trying out your newest joke, or sharing your political views should be saved for designated meetings with that objective, a happy hour discussion, or a dinner meeting outside of the networking event (even if with members or attendees of the networking event).
- A chance to sell the attendees of the event on your latest product, service, or idea. I know, that sounds contrary to what you thought. Treat the networking event as an opportunity to meet the contacts of the person you are networking with and NOT as a chance to do the business equivalent of speed dating where you try to woo everyone you meet with your product/service in the hope of converting that person to a customer.
- A place to hand out your business card to everyone you meet and pray they remember you and call or email you with a desire to work together. Rather, you want to collect the cards of others and maintain control over following up with that person to steer the conversation into a warm referral (a warm referral is one where the person referring connects with the person to be referred and introduces you to them – it is NOT where you are given an address, email or phone number and told to contact the person – that is going to likely lead to defensiveness on the person being contacted by you “out of the blue” without the context of who you are, what you provide and why the other person would be willing to connect).
What it IS
A networking event is a place for you to engage with people with common target customers that offer non-competing products and services. So often people attend these events, but do so with people seeking the SAME prospects and offering the SAME products/services. So, in essence, they are competitors. How willing are you to share your prospect list or friends’ contact information with a competitor? Rather, it is better to seek out groups where you and the others share a prospect target pool, but are not direct competitors. So, an Accountant might attend a meeting of Web Designers (given that both are seeking businesses that are in start-up mode or expanding), A Leadership Consultant might choose to participate in a networking meeting of Sales Executives (they both could help the other). The effort should be seeking a mutual benefit.
How Do I Do It?
So, with the dread that you are likely feeling at the thought of attending a networking meeting, your mind is swimming with the thoughts, “What am I going to say? Who will I speak to? How many people do I need to talk with? I hope there is an open bar and a cozy wall for me to lean against,” etc.
The process for succeeding at networking events is captured in the acronym, G.A.I.N.S. This acronym is at the heart of the approach used by Dr. Ivan Misner, Founder of Business Network International (BNI) G.A.I.N.S. approach.
The recommended approach is to focus your one-on-one conversations on some combination of the following (remember, networking is a strategy that requires diligence and ongoing contact with people to develop trust. It is not a “try it once” approach):
Goals – what is the other person’s goal or objectives they aspire to achieve? Professionally and/or personally. Are there areas where there is a match?
Achievements – what has the other person accomplished or seek to accomplish? Does anything sound like something you know about or can help the other person?
Interests – what are the other person’s passions or interests? As is often the case, people will want to associate and help those that are similar to them, so seek out areas of common interests.
Networks – investigate what other social or professional circles (networks) the other person may share with you, or of interest to you as you share the same with the other person in return.
Skills – what do you and the other person both do well, or what skills do you each have that may complement each other?
Networking is like any other skill you are trying to develop. There will be times when you will feel awkward in the beginning as you try to do it. Focus on practicing it by rehearsing the questions you will ask of the other and truly listening for answers (not just waiting your turn to speak) that may help you connect with the other person and his or her network.
Meanwhile, I will be standing at the bar giving you the thumbs up sign for moving your business forward.