A guest post by John Harvey, Founder of The Samphire Club
Networking has always been at the heart of my work in sales and business development. It’s something I feel evangelical about and in today’s fast paced, technological age, finding that human connection has never been more valuable or essential for building personal and business success.
In this piece I’m going to debunk some myths around networking and put forward a serviceable working definition of what networking is and what it can do for you and your business. I’ll also offer step-by-step, practical advice on networking basics and some ideas for taking it up a notch or two and networking with style.
What networking is not
All too often I hear people dismissing networking as a “necessary evil.” One of those things they know they should be doing more of but they’re either too busy, regard it as shallow and salesy or shy away from, because it doesn’t seem like their thing.
Networking in this day and age is not confined to in-person events. Social media activity such as tweeting, Instagram, Facebook and interacting on LinkedIn all contribute to building your personal brand and connections, and so definitely fall under the networking banner.
Meeting and communicating via social media is in fact a great ice-breaker. Online encounters often pave the way for meeting in IRL (In Real Life). If you’ve already come across or interacted with someone on social media and you meet them for the first time face-to face, it can feel like they’re an old friend – you’ve got a bit of history, common ground, a starting point.
Networking as a skill
Real networking isn’t meeting as many people as you can in one go. It’s not business-card Top Trumps or selling at first sight. It’s not just a business development task but a multi-faceted skill and if it’s powered by the right mindset it’ll see you reaping benefits across all that you do.
In it for the long-term
As marketing approaches go, networking is a long-term, no-quick-fix way of building your business.
So, to get anything beneficial out of it at all, you need to show up. “Showing up” is not the same as just being there. Showing up is about employing strategic thinking, being clear about your goals, what you’re looking for and, most importantly, what you can contribute to your business community.
Who’s in charge?
When I hear people say, “…that wasn’t worth going to” or “I wish every event was as good as that” my heart sinks because the point about networking is that, whether you’re a sole trader, an employee or marketing director of an SME, you are in fact very much the architect of your own success.
Not all networking events are created, or indeed, intended to be equal. There are niche events focused on a particular sector in a particular location, eg Cornwall WedMeetUps, industry-wide gatherings and general, area-specific business events eg with local Chambers of Commerce. Depending on your particular areas of operation, who you serve, or could serve, and where you are in your business cycle, you’ll find these variously more or less beneficial.
Strategic thinking has to come into play so that you use your time and energy wisely and to maximum effect.
Qualities to develop
Two stand-out qualities that you should keep top of mind through all your networking initiatives are likeability and authenticity. Be conscious of being helpful, interested, courteous and most importantly, yourself.
Build social capital
Being introduced to someone who you then, at some point in the future, end up working with certainly feels like success but the ultimate win in networking goes deeper than that. It centres on having the long-lasting and transferrable benefit of a great reputation and social capital.
Social capital, a term coined by French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, is crucial. It’s the influence and reach you have within your network, the goodwill you generate, the things you do for others and also what others do for you.
Competition? What competition?
Having the right mindset does heaps for building social capital. Many people express concern when networking about being in a room or social media space with the competition. But think about those highly successful Twitter hours (around geographical locations or business niches) – they’re all about building relationships, creating a community, helping each other and sharing knowledge.
Abundance and collaboration
Approach all your networking with a mindset revolving around abundance and collaboration. Ask yourself could you ever hope to work for absolutely everyone who may need your services? (The answer incidentally is probably, “no.”)
Think about what makes your business and approach unique and divest yourself of those kneejerk concerns around scarcity and competition.
Making the most of a networking event becomes easy when you focus on three key steps: before (planning ahead), on the day (getting it right) and after (following up).
Set yourself goals so that you can then evaluate the success of the event. These can be quite general, from speaking to two people you’ve not met before to the more specific, arranging an introduction to someone you’ve had your eye on collaborating with.
Try to obtain a delegate list in advance as this will help with your planning. Research potential new connections via social media feeds, visit LinkedIn profiles and Twitter. If the event has a hashtag join in the conversation about it on Twitter, tell people you’re going, amplify others’ attendance and be a part of the event before you even walk through the door.
See which of your clients and suppliers are attending and plan to spend time with them. A useful rule of thumb is devoting 80% of your time to your existing contacts – cultivating the relationships you already have.
The boring stuff
And finally, be fully conversant with the boring stuff. Make sure you know the route to the event, plan your journey, check parking arrangements, dress appropriately and bring enough business cards and something for taking notes.
Getting it right on the day
Arrive on time and engage with the people manning the reception desk: it’ll help you feel more relaxed and build confidence, setting the tone for how you approach the event.
If you haven’t seen the delegate list already, take a moment to study it before going in and then scan the room, planning where you’re going to head (the drinks station is usually a good place to start especially if the event and delegates are unfamiliar).
I’m often asked how you start a conversation with someone you don’t know. Aim for an Alpha State where you’re relaxed and aware through peripheral vision of what’s happening in the room around you. Be mindful of people already deep in private conversations and don’t intrude. Choose groups that aren’t closed (i.e. there’s room for you to join) and individuals who are standing alone.
Starting a conversation is simple – make eye contact, smile, extend a handshake and introduce yourself. Us humans are programmed to respond and before you know it, you’ll be talking!
What to say
Bear in mind that networking is about making connections and not attempting to condense the sales process into a five minute encounter.
Focus not on what you do or want, business-wise, but on the person you’re engaging with and the potential relationship you’re building. Engaging in a small number of good quality conversations where you gain an understanding of others is far more beneficial than superficially covering the whole room, dishing out business cards.
And you’ll do well to remember something a wise woman once said to me:
“You can’t be sure who someone is (i.e. a job title is never the full picture!), who they know and who they’ll become.”
Before you leave, thank the organisers – it’s good manners!
The all-important follow up
This is the part a lot of people skip. Allow for time on your own immediately after the event to write up notes: who you met, what you talked about, some of the seemingly incidental information you took on board and craft a “to do,” next steps list.
Aim to send follow up emails to the people you’d like to start building relationships with, within 24 hours.
In the spirit of there being nothing quite like staying top of mind when you’ve recently met, this can be a good time too for enhancing that social capital. Recommending a book, sending a link to an article or website your new contact may find useful are all authentic ways of building your profile and preparing the ground for future exchanges.
Standing out from the crowd
If the above are the networking basics what can you do to make yourself stand out from the networking crowd? How can you ensure you’re approachable and likely to be remembered for all the right reasons?
Step back to move forward
There’s a saying, that all too often “we don’t listen to understand, we listen to respond.” How often have you forgotten to actually listen to what someone’s saying because you’re too busy formulating a reply? Quite simply, stepping back and taking the time to listen improves the quality of your conversation.
Dig a well before you’re thirsty
Many people only turn to networking when they need to, whey they’ve lost a client or need extra work. This inevitably means coming at networking from a position of relative weakness. It’s far better to make it a part of your everyday so that you have a vibrant and resilient network of contacts to fall back on should you need it.
Social media spring-cleaning
When I meet people via social media or at events, you can bet one thing – I’ll follow up by checking out all their social media profiles. Staying visible, active and up to date on social media is a must. Curating and sharing, developing and posting noteworthy and relevant content, particularly before an event, enhances your visibility and credibility.
Networking one to many
In building your personal brand be mindful of developing a perspective on your sector. Blog or broadcast producing information and insight that avoids the hard sell but helps your target audience, positioning you as an expert. A speaking gig at a networking event or industry conference is one of the most powerful ways of networking en masse.
Think outside the networking box
Seth Godin’s book “Tribes” talks about harnessing the power of the Internet to create groups that bring about change. In that same vein, some of the most effective networking takes place in non-networking-designated settings, i.e. when you come together through a shared interest or cause. A fundraising event, where barriers of hierarchy and sector soon melt away can be a great environment for helping deeper relationships to flourish.
Finding the value
Networking, as part of your marketing mix, can sometime look a little uncomfortable set against activities that are easier to implement, measure and assess. For me, this always brings to mind the McNamara fallacy:
“Not everything that has value can be measured; not everything that can be measured has value.”
To make your networking truly effective have a strategy, build industry knowledge and keep up with local developments but more than anything, leave a little wriggle room.
There has to be space left for the magic that happens with that lucky chance encounter. Serendipity complements strategy perfectly and allows for the discovery of opportunities that you didn’t even know you were interested in until you suddenly were.
That, and remembering to make it fun, is surely what great and highly effective networking is about.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Harvey, Founder of The Samphire Club
With over 30 years’ experience in sales, business development and client management, John is one of the UK’s leading experts in the field of business networking.
John’s approach to networking focuses on building meaningful relationships and freely sharing knowledge and contacts. The Samphire Club which he founded and launched in April 2016 sees him combining his strategic networking and business experience with a skill and flair for putting together valuable and memorable events.
The Club has grown steadily, building membership, creating commercial opportunities and promoting closer ties between individuals and organisations working within the private sector in Cornwall, Devon, Bristol and London.