How strong is your network? What return do you get for your networking effort?
Successful networking is about your ability to forge mutually beneficial, integrated alliances with the right partners.
This is especially true for SMEs, where one-on-one relationships and personal contacts continue to drive the bulk of word of mouth business. For some SMEs, it is also important to go beyond industry contacts and focus on regional partnerships. For example, tech firms in the West Midlands, where analysts are expecting strong growth well into 2016, will want to build stronger cross-industry relationships with partners locally to fuel their expansion.
Networking with a plan in place is essential if you are to make a positive first impression, connect with the right cross-industry experts and master the post-event follow up. Here is my advice on what to do before, during and after your next networking event.
1 Attend the right events
When it comes to high-priced industry conferences, do a bit of advance work. Talk to participants from previous years. Ask whether they feel the conference was worth the time and financial investment. How many new contacts did they make and how beneficial have these proved to be over the past year?
For local events, such as networking lunches and happy hours, aim for a balanced mix of sector events and those for the wider business community. SMEs need to balance industry contacts with a strong, diverse geographic network for maximum exposure and relationship building.
2 Practice your proposition
Master a one- or two-line proposition in advance that summarises who you are, your experience and what you currently do (or would like to do) as it relates to potential contacts you'll meet at the event.
Remember, you don't 'help' people; you 'work' with them (because the latter implies a fee). It's good to have something the clients will want (eg money, time, happiness, etc) and something they want to avoid (eg efforts, mistakes, pain, etc) embedded in what you say. For example: "I work with family businesses to help them unlock sustainable profits and avoid costly mistakes."
Practice responses for other typical icebreaker questions, such as "What brings you to this event?" and "How's business?" Ask questions, listen and be willing to move on if it's the right thing to do.
3 Identify your networking opportunities in advance
While there's value in meeting a wide variety of people at an event, too many brief contacts can mean you fail to make a memorable impression on anyone. Instead, identify whom you want to meet in advance and make it your mission to speak with these people.
4 Ask great questions
The better you get at asking questions, the better you'll get at making connections between the people you're speaking to and other contacts already in your network. Consider why the person you're speaking to should care about you, your business and this conversation. By asking great questions, you may even learn something surprising or unexpected (eg a new business challenge or need) and can tailor your conversation accordingly.
Aim to walk away from every conversation having allowed the other person to speak more than you did. They feel great about the interaction and you'll gain valuable insight into what they do, who they know and how they could best work with you in future business endeavours. One question that can support building a larger network is: "Knowing what you know about me now - who else should I meet?"
5 Master the follow-up
At the event, jot down a few notes about your conversation on the back of your contact's business card. Within 48 hours, follow up with a short, personalised email referencing one or more of these points. If you can make an introduction for them do so, and follow up on "You mentioned I should meet […], could you make an introduction for me?"
Finally, don't let your newly forged relationship get stuck online. It's tempting to think once you've connected with someone on LinkedIn your work is done, but it's just beginning! A person-to-person meeting is key to nurturing a new connection. Personal discussion can lead to faster, more productive dialogue than online correspondence, especially if you're trying to close a new business deal.
Copyright © William Buist, a business strategist, speaker and founder of the exclusive xTEN Club, an annual programme of strategic activities for small, exclusive groups of business owners. xTEN helps accelerate growth, harness opportunity, build your business and develop ideas. William is also author of two books: At your fingertips and The little book of mentoring.