Do you suffer from networking-phobia? How to get the most from face-to-face networking

When talking to local businesses, especially start-ups, I often suggest that they include face to face networking as part of the marketing strategy. If you are working and trading in a local area, finding and making connections with other businesses locally is an obvious benefit. Yet, if the look of horror on many people’s faces when I suggest this, is anything to go by; the idea of networking is something they would put on a par with going to the dentists or putting pins in their eyes!

Some people have a natural fear of going into a room of people they don’t know and thinking they need to be selling their business, or that they are going to be sold to.

Others may have been to some events and found the whole experience uncomfortable. Read our blog ‘Are you a sheep, bunny or shark?’ for more information about different types of networkers.

Some people have expectations that if they don’t come away from an event with an order it has been a failure, or will look at a delegate list and if they can’t see their potential customers there, think it won’t be of use.

Yet, if you go to any town or city in the UK you will find a plethora of networking and business events. So how come all these people think it is worth the effort and seem to be making it work? What do they know that the ‘non-believers’ don’t?

Let’s look at why people network?

If you are a business who is operating in a local area then getting to know other local businesses is a benefit. They may not want or need your services, but they will undoubtedly know people who do so by building a relationship you can build a network of people who will be a salesforce for your business.

Word of mouth marketing, or peer recommendations are one of the most effective ways you can get new business, and networking can be a great way of building a base of advocates and referrers.

It isn’t just about selling, however, you could find new suppliers or potential new collaborators or business partners that can take your business in new directions.

Running your own business can be very lonely, so there is also a support element or spending time with people who are in a similar situation and may have faced some of the challenges you are facing.

Non of this matters if you don’t effectively network

There is a lot of benefit you can gain from face to face networking, but like all thing, there are ways to get the best out of it.  Here are my tips for more effective networking:

  1. Be prepared – that includes having a stock of business cards you can easily lay your hands on; not at the bottom of your bag or in your car.
  2. Listen – networking will involve talking, but the best communicators are the best listeners, so don’t just launch into a ‘sales patter’ about your business, listen to what the other person has to say.
  3. Ask questions – listening isn’t about staying quiet, and by asking questions of the other person and then listening to their answers in an interested and engaged way, you will get the best out of the conversation. By listening to the other person first, it also helps you to frame what you are going to say to be of interest to them.
  4. Be interested – it is no good asking questions if you are not actively listening and showing that you are interested. It amazes me how many times in networking, people are looking over your shoulder to see if there is a ‘better’ person to talk to, or fiddling with their phone, and the effect is to show complete disinterest
  5. Be interesting – you will be asked to talk about what you do, but don’t just reel off a pat sales blurb. When people ask you what you do, think of how you can answer that in a more interesting way. Avoid generic phrases like ‘quality service’ and ‘solutions’ and give people some specifics and tangibles.
  6. Be brave – if the event involves you having to stand and introduce your business, this can be one of the most nerve racking parts of networking. But, like all things, practice makes perfect so prepare a short 30 second speech about what you do and then practice out loud (I do it in the car). I wouldn’t suggest you write it down as this often comes across quite stilted and can make you even more nervous. It doesn’t need to be word-perfect and after all who is better placed to know about your business than you, so try and be passionate and enthusiastic and remember, most people feel the same way you do!
  7. Don’t sell – even if you identify that there are some potential dream clients in the room, do not sell to them. No one likes to be sold to in a networking environment, so look at making contact and building a relationship with them rather than go in for the quick sell.
  8. Don’t dismiss – if you end up sat next to someone you think can be of no use to you, don’t switch off and dismiss them. Not only is this rude, but you never know who they now in business or personally and I have had some of my best referrals from people who would never want my services, but who are connected to someone who is a great contact.
  9. Mingle – one of the hardest things to do at open networking events is to mingle and talk to lots of people. It can be tempting to stick to people you know (especially if you came with other people), or get stuck talking to one person for the whole event. It may seem daunting, but try and move around the room and don’t be afraid to open the conversation. Have a few stock questions that you can ask that will break the ice ‘Have you been to this event before?’ for example. If there is an organiser, you could ask them to introduce you to a specific person.
  10. Follow up … carefully – there is a fine line between effective follow up and spamming. If you are going to an event and think you may not see that person again, then by all means make contact outside of the meeting. Just because you have chatted to someone over a coffee for a few minutes, however, doesn’t mean you can bombard them with emails and calls trying to sell to them. Building a relationship in business is like building a relationship in real life, it takes time and going into too ‘full on’, especially if you don’t know if the person is interested just looks like stalking! I find that making a connection on LinkedIn is often a good ‘first date’ and allows the relationship to develop.
  11. Do what you say you will do – if you have said you will pass some contacts or information onto someone, then make sure you do it. If you promise to do something and don’t bother, it does more damage than if you hadn’t offered as it just proves you don’t do what you say you will and who is going to refer one of their contacts to such a person.

There are many networking events, with different style and timings, so go and see what is out there and then commit to a few that you can really make work for you.

If you are in North East Lincolnshire, why not visit Kindred Networking, which is an informal group, run by local businesses and aimed at local business owners who want to learn and get support in a laid-back, non-salesy environment. Visit www.kindrednetworking.co.uk for more information