In business, much is made of networking. And yet many of us dread going to networking events because of the pressure of finding new people to talk to, or because we never quite know what to say in our “elevator pitch”.
Networking can be a particular chore if you, like me, are an introvert and hate socialising. Other people make networking into a competition to see who can get the most business cards, or plug their own business at every opportunity.
In this article, I'm going to offer you a different way of looking at networking that can turn a challenge or a chore into a productive and above all enjoyable activity.
**What's your intention?**
What intention do you have in mind when you go to a networking event?
Most people focus on well-intentioned targets like
- “How many new contacts or email sign-ups can I collect?”
- “I want to meet as many new people as possible”
- “Who can I meet that will turn into a hot sales lead?”
You may have found that these approaches tend not to work. Or at least, you might collect lots of business cards, but you are really no better off than if you’d bought that many names from a list.
I recently received an email from someone who said “It was a pleasure to meet you at the recent event”. I wasn’t even at that event - but I had lent my cards to a colleague who had run out of his own. The person sending the email hadn’t even noticed that my name is female and my colleague is male. As you can imagine, that didn’t create too good an impression with me.
**A fresh perspective**
Let me offer you another way to look at networking - why not see every event as the opportunity to begin a relationship that will be mutually beneficial over time?
**to begin: a relationship: that will be mutually beneficial: over time**
There are lots of important parts to that challenge which I will explore in turn:
The networking event is just the first opportunity to meet someone. It is naive to hope to close a deal with someone on first meeting, so why should a networking event be any different? Like any other relationship in life, start with the basics of getting to know each other. Everything else will build on this basis.
In business, the idea of a relationship is undervalued, and yet all transactions fundamentally boil down to interactions between individuals. This means that the underlying human relationship is an essential currency in all business dealings.
Time invested in creating, developing and maintaining relationships will always pay dividends. The networking event is the opportunity to create new relationships.
If I have started two new relationships out of one event then I am pretty happy - certainly happier than if I’ve collected 50 business cards, but can’t actually remember the people behind any of them. Chances are that those people won’t remember me either.
This is the absolute key. We’ve all met the seasoned networker with the polished elevator pitch, who works the room with military precision, and glazes over as soon as they think that you won’t be a potential buyer.
On the face of it, these people have a great strategy, but think what they’re missing out on. If they walk away from me leaving me feel worthless (to them) I’m unlikely to hold any great feeling of loyalty or commitment to them in return. So as and when I DO have a need for their product or service, guess what? I won’t be calling them any time soon.
On the other hand, what has worked for me, and will work for you too, is to assume that there’s always a way in which I can offer the other person something of benefit to them. This might simply be an article I think they’ll be interested in, or it might be a contact name that they’re looking for. Once, it was a lift to a crucial football match.
The thing is, it costs me nothing but a small effort to find out how I can help, and to make that thing happen. Then, when they have a need for my product or service the chances are that I will be favourably in their minds when they’re ready to buy.
The final thing to remember is that networking is not about instant results. The person you meet at networking may turn into a valued client, and this only happens when you have built the relationship, and earned trust and respect.
The more you invest in the relationship the more you will understand the other person’s priorities, values and needs, and the better placed you will be to meet those needs.
**How can I help you?**
The person who taught me this, by her own demonstration of this approach, was Rhona Hutchon, of the Harvey Nash. I first met Rhona at an event in 2000. She approached me and took an immediate interest in me. She soon discovered that my company then had only 6 people and no budget to recruit, let alone use an agency. Where others would have glazed over and walked away, Rhona took an interest in me and found out a little bit more before elegantly leaving the conversation (incidentally, by introducing me to someone who she thought might be interested in my service). She left me feeling good about myself, about her and about the meeting.
Some time later, she sent me a small snippet she thought I might be interested in. A few months after that she invited me to an event where she thought I might be able to meet some potential buyers. And so it went on, with Rhona actively building the relationship.
My company began to grow rapidly, and guess who the only recruiter was that I trusted and respected enough to do business with? Since then, Rhona probably placed over 20 recruits with that company. In return, we recommended her to everyone we spoke to - a true illustration of a relationship that has been mutually beneficial over time.
**What about you?**
When you are next planning to go to a networking event, try the following simple action plan:
- decide ahead what you want to achieve, in terms of how many new relationships you plan to initiate
- enter the event with a smile - it signals friendliness and approachability, and also gives you self-confidence
- ask open, general questions to learn as much about the other person as possible
- listen and look out for opportunities to offer something that will help the other person
- don’t try to push your product or service. Remember that you are just starting the process of building up trust and respect
- always follow up on your promises. Send that article, or pass on that contact
- keep in touch. You never know when that new relationship will deliver benefits
And I'll ask you the same question that Rhona asked me - how can I help you?
Madeleine Allen is a human leader in a corporate world. She delivers training in Soft Skills with Hard Benefits, enabling leaders to be compassionate AND profitable.
About our blog
A miscellany of articles and opinions on communication, leadership and management topics.