Businesspeople unfamiliar with referral networking sometimes lose sight of the fact that networking is the means--not the end--of their business-building activities. They attend three, four, even five events in a week in a desperate grasp for new business. The predictable result is that they stay so busy meeting new people that they never have time to follow up and cultivate those relationships--and how can they expect to get new business from someone they've only just met? As one of these unfortunates remarked to me, "I feel like I'm always networking but rarely getting anything done."
I certainly agree that meeting new people is an integral part of networking, but it's important to remember why we're doing it in the first place: to develop a professional rapport with individuals that will deepen over time into a trusting relationship that will eventually lead to a mutually beneficial and continuing exchange of referrals.
When meeting someone for the first time, focus on the potential relationship you might form. As hard as it may be to suppress your business reflexes, at this stage you cannot make it your goal to sell your services or promote your company. You're there to get to know a new person. A friend of mine told me something his dad always said: "You don't have to sell to friends." That's especially good advice when interacting with new contacts.
This doesn't mean you'll never get to sell anything to people you meet while networking; it does, however, mean that you'll need to employ a different approach. Networking isn't about closing business deals or meeting hordes of new people; it's about developing relationships in which future business can be closed. Once you understand that and put it into practice, you'll notice a few things happening to your business.
First, you'll stand out from the crowd with everyone you meet. People often ask me how they can get business at an event when there are so many other people trying to do the same thing. I simply tell them to be different. A good way to do that is by asking a new contact good questions and taking the time to listen to her answers. (A "good" question is one that gets the person talking about herself while helping you understand her business. It's not an opportunity for you to vet this person as a client.)
Good questions not only get the ball rolling, but they also take the pressure off you to carry the conversation. Meeting new people can be hard enough without feeling like you have to be the life of the party to do it. If you're not sure what kinds of questions to ask, read Master Networkers Ask the Right Questions for more some ideas.
This advance networking approach is especially vital for mortgage brokers, real estate agents, insurance agents, CPAs, financial planners, and others in highly competitive industries. You can't go to a networking event without running into at least one person in some of those fields.
When you network selflessly, you'll absolutely blow away any competitors who still feel compelled to meet as many people as they can. Why? Because when you call your contacts back, they'll actually remember who you are and will be willing to meet with you again. This is a critical next step for securing more business.
With all of this in mind, let's take a look at some specific steps you can take toward getting more business from your very next event.
- Limit the number of contacts per event. The most important thing is the quality of the contacts, which means the type of contact, the relevance to your business and interests, how good a connection you're making and the individual involved. At a typical event, five to 10 might be all you can handle. This may not seem like a lot of contacts, but it's really more than enough when you're talking to the right people. (That's why it's so important to have a networking strategy.) If you attend two events per week, that's 10 events a month, or 30 to 50 new contacts every 30 days. Continue to do that over the next couple of months--while following up with the people you've met--and you'll soon have more than enough high-quality contacts to keep you busy.
- Spend five to 10 minutes talking to and listening to each person. Just because you're not handing out your business card to 1,001 people doesn't mean you should spend 20 minutes talking to just one individual. Invest a few minutes to get to know each person. Make sure to ask for her business card. Then follow up with her after the event; this is where the heavy lifting takes place. Remember, all we're doing now is setting the stage for future business.
- Write notes on the backs of people's cards. Not only do notes help you remember what the other person said at an event, but it also slows you down a bit so you're not running around trying to meet the next person. On the front of the card, you can write the date and name of the event where you met the person; on the back, jot down a few quick notes about the conversation or anything else of note. When you contact the person later, this will give you something to refer to.
Here are a few things to remember when it comes to meeting new people:
- You're not interested in selling anything to this person you've just met; you want to find some way you can help her. You understand, of course, that what goes around comes around, usually in the form of referrals for your business.
- You want to create a visible identity with everyone you meet. A visible identity is the answer to this question: "How can I differentiate myself, in the mind of this other person, from the other five people she's already met?"
Keeping those two ideas in mind will give you a leg up when meeting new contacts. Using these simple approaches, you'll see an up-tick in the amount of new business and referrals you get while networking.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.