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Copyright © 2016 by Joseph M. Thomas. All rights reserved. The book excerpts used here may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or where written permission has been granted.
I am going to share with you something that I am very passionate about: networking! I guess if I had to be honest about it, I am addicted to networking. I enjoy connecting people together. I get a thrill in learning about other people, their businesses, and their why. Through networking events, you have an opportunity to introduce yourself to others. You get to expose your business to a select, targeted group of people. These people are potential prospects as well as potential sources of information and/or referrals.
Love it or hate it, networking is a must, regardless of the type of business you are in. And, whether you realize it or not, you network every day without even thinking about it. How you introduce yourself will make an impact and will determine whether or not they will actually remember you, your product, or your company. Networking is typically a marketing and business development function, but I feel that it can be for everyone.
You can make it enjoyable and beneficial by doing the following:
- Qualifying prospects
- Creating strategic alliances
- Developing business relationships
- Looking for mutually supportive friendships
I feel that it is always important for my audience to know who Joe Thomas is. I am an entrepreneur, husband, and father to five kids, who all arrived in a five-year span. The first set of twins arrived just before I started my current profession of being a financial professional. When I need inspiration, all I have to do is look into their eyes. They are all depending on me each and every day to go out there and kick butt.
I have been in the business world for more than 21 years. Over that time, I have learned many lessons and most of them the hard way. There has been one constant observation from the very beginning: I noticed that some people seemed to have it easier in business than others. When I looked closer at their success, I found that it often could be attributed somehow to whom they knew. Never is this truer than in the South (the southeastern corner of the United States). What did take me some time to learn was how you get to know the "right" people.
Those formidable years led me to create a list of helpful insights into networking, a stepwise process for going out into the untamed jungle of networking. Think of it as a mission, a quest, or just a chore, but at the end of the day, you have to do it to be successful in business. I know, I know, as a business owner you are doing at least three things at once: prospecting, selling, and servicing. But networking is about prospecting and relationship building, not selling.
To network effectively, you have to identify one key element. Who is your ideal client or who are people with whom you need to meet? What are their characteristics? Can you name 10 or 15 of these ideal people? Have you been in the business long enough to identify who fits your product or service? When you make the sale to this ideal person, is it easier to close at a higher profit margin, or is it just a great fit?
Now we will dive into 11 areas that you will want to address so that you can make an impact on the individuals you will come in contact with. The simple truth is this: If you don't make an impact on them, you will be forgettable. Now let's start the journey.
Attend the Right Events
Time and energy are more valuable than money to most professionals. You don't have enough hours in the day to get done what you need to get done already. You need to seek out those organizations whose members can help you in some way. Some groups will provide prospects, others will provide support services, and then some will provide strategic alliances. Choose the organizations you belong to with one of two questions in mind: What can I give? or What can I gain?
So what are some types of organizations that are good for most professionals? Well, we can start with occupation-specific groups that are in line with your company's business. MDRT is a great example of this type of group. This will allow you to recruit the talent that your company will need. It will also help keep you aware of industry-specific changes that are coming or have already hit. Think of these as peer groups. These are also great if you have identified your ideal client as a specific occupation, like the AMA for physicians.
These are organizations where everyone there is in the same industry, but not all are from the same occupation, meaning that you will have some people with roles like yours, and others who might be buying from you or selling to you. From a sales perspective, these would be a place to target an industry without concentrating on a specific occupation.
Job Fairs or Hiring Events
These can really be time-savers if you know how to work them to get to the best talent in the room. These are not events to attend where the only thought is networking. You should have an actual reason to be there; otherwise, it's just weird that you're there.
Caution! Remember their purpose for being. Usually these organizations' sole purpose for being is a cause. As long as you go into the meeting with their cause being the reason for attending, then you might just be surprised at the level and amount of networking that happens here.
Chambers of Commerce
These organizations are obvious because they often have networking in their mission or purpose. If your target market is small- to medium-size business owners, then you have hit the mother lode. Don't be surprised if many of your competitors are in the room or by the amount of "sales" people in attendance.
Business Network Groups
These are great, but can vary drastically from group to group. Some are very rigid in their structure, whereas others are loosey-goosey in their rules. Some will be very business-to-business oriented, whereas others will have a more business-to-consumer approach. It's important to find a group that meets your needs.
One of the best business networking groups in the world that I have been able to visit and be a part of is BNI (Business Network International). Being part of one of these local chapters has definitely helped me grow my financial advising and company benefits practice significantly.
Plan in Advance
Have you ever registered for an event, put it on your calendar, and then just showed up and put your name tag on? No wonder you felt awkward from the moment you walked in the door. Do your homework! You wouldn't go into a business deal unprepared—this is the equivalent.
So how do you prepare for a networking event? It is like preparing for a business or a sales meeting. The first question is, Who will be there? You need to know the attendees in advance. This is where cyberstalking can come in handy. Most organizations have a website, and these days more are getting into the social media game. Crack open your computer and find the organization. Discover who the key players are in the group. Then, go a step further and learn something about each of the key players. This will not only make you more comfortable on your first visit but give you some conversation starters.
What do you want them to remember about you when they walk away? You want them to feel like they were special and you were there for them. Plan to be memorable in a good way, because those who don't plan, plan to fail. Above all, remember that, in networking, cyberstalking is OK!
Know the Culture of the Group
Some groups may be more rigid with regard to how much self-promotion can be done or what kind of material and how much of it you might bring with you for display. Don't leave yourself open to a business or social etiquette faux pas. Those tend to leave lasting impressions and are not the kind that work for you!
This is where your network can really help you. Find out if others in your circle are members or have visited the group. You can get the inside information this way. What you wear is very important for your first impression, so knowing what everyone else will be wearing sure helps you fit in. You can always come in dressed above the normal but not below.
One of the best ways to overcome the culture of a group is to know someone who is a member already. That person can introduce you around the group, lending credibility to you and your company. I highly suggest this if possible.
This is the Boy Scout motto. Being an Eagle Scout, I've lived this motto most of my life. I can't tell you how many times I've run into someone at a networking event who does not have one or all of the essential networking items: business cards, a pen, and a name badge.
Bring something to write with and on. Whether you need to jot down a name or an address, or if you want to make yourself a reminder or take notes, you will need to bring the right tools. Don't bring a spiral notebook either. A professional-looking portfolio with paper that has a place to slip in handouts would be perfect. If you are technologically inclined, an iPad or iPad Mini would be a small and convenient way to bring the information back digitally.
Bringing extra pens is not a bad thought here. Just think, if other people forgot theirs or left their purse in the car, you can then share your logoed pen with them and thus stay top of mind all day. At the check-in table, just ask if you can leave a pen for them to use.
Let's take a moment to talk about name badges. Your name badge should always appear on the right lapel, because that is where your eyes go when you shake hands. I always like to bring my own name badge. This way I know that it will stay on my suit and not fall off. How many times have you walked up to someone to introduce yourself and your name badge has decided to reattach itself somewhere other than your right lapel? It also helps you stand out in the crowd. Some people might even think that you are someone of importance (more than you actually are). It never hurts to be noticed, so long as it is in a good way. Speaking of which, your personal name badge should not be larger than your business card. It is just tacky when you do this.
One very effective marketing tool I have seen used are rip cards. These are basically one-third of a piece of medium card stock paper with a perforated business card at the bottom. The top part is used to put information about your company or the event that you are promoting. It is not so big that it just gets stuffed into a bag; rather, if someone has a suit pocket, it just slides right in.
First off, a business card is not a resume, but it does need to say clearly and concisely what your business is. It also needs to have your name and contact information on it. Getting cute with how you format the basic information is not necessary; it just confuses people and their card scanners.
Just because you want to give people your business card doesn't mean that they want it. The same is true for your marketing material or resume. Please wait until you are asked for the collateral before you shove it down someone's throat. So how does one get rid of all these pieces of marketing propaganda? First, ask people for theirs, and then, in most places, especially in the South, you will be asked for yours in return.
The exchange of information seems simple enough, right? Well, I have to admit that some people can mess up the simplest of transactions. What does it say to you when people take your business card and shove it into their pocket? You know it will be crumpled up, and they probably won't remember who you are. The worst-case scenario is that it gets washed and destroyed in the laundry. Do not do the same to someone else. No, no, no! You have to give and receive business cards with a little more respect. This will increase credibility for your company by showing respect for others.
Since you're at a networking event, you should want to get everyone else's card, right? And everyone needs one of yours, right? No, no, no! Qualify those who would value having your information. The only people who profit from everyone getting everyone else's card are the printers!
Create a system of intake for your business cards so as to follow up. Don't just take them back to your office and throw them in a drawer. The first step when you get a card is to inspect it for the pertinent information. If appropriate, make some notes on the card such as this:
- Where you met them
- What the date is
- Topics to follow up
- Items of interest in the conversation
- Extra data to show you were listening to them
I personally do this with symbols and my cryptic handwriting. Whatever the method that you come up with, use it! It will definitely help you with the follow-up side of networking, which is by far the most important part.
Conversation Is King
Do you do interviews for your company? Do you ever use the "tell me about yourself" question? Why do you use this question? Because it's an easy ice breaker, you learn about them, and you create a bond so that you can ask what you really want to know? Quite honestly, they may tell you more than you bargained for.
The same is true in networking. Asking people what they do is the easiest way to get a conversation started. When they answer, you must listen intently. Their answer will give you the ammunition to direct the conversation and keep it going.
What does that mean? Well, while they are telling you about themselves and what they do, you should be actively listening, not only to keep them talking, but also to pick up on the areas of opportunity and places where you might be of service or help.
Eventually, they will be done, and it will be your time to shine. You must develop an "elevator speech" before you go out networking. This is the one- to three-minute spiel that communicates your unique story, why you do what you do, and who you do that with, which is focused on the target audience in the networking circle. For some people, this comes naturally, whereas for others, it is a challenge. I will bet you this—when you sit down and create this speech, you will be impressed with yourself and all that you do.
To Whom Are You Speaking?
A networking function is an ideal way to have people get to know you. In business, as well as in personal dealings, it is best to create a relaxed and personal environment to introduce what you do and gather others' information. To do this most effectively, you will need to be aware of the personalities you are meeting.
When meeting others, their different personality traits will shine through. One will usually stick out more than all the rest. Once you can figure out what trait sticks out, it will make it so much easier to talk with them.
We see this every day all around us; a couple of examples can be found in your favorite movies or cartoons.
Let's start with the outgoing leader. These are people who don't always think of others' feelings, they're louder than others, and they just want only the facts to make a quick decision. They are usually well dressed and always have somewhere to be. They don't have time for the full story, so a bulleted list will have to do.
When talking with them, you'll want to allow them to drive the conversation, with little tweaks from you. It's much like flying a plane. If you try too hard to change the conversation, they will become disinterested and move on. You might see it as their being rude, but actually that is just how they operate. To play to their strengths, keep your conversation short. Bullet points are great, but don't have too many of them, and you will do just fine. When they are ready to move on, let them go, but be sure to plant the seed to continue the conversation.
Next is the persuader, who is also loud and outgoing, but in a more entertaining way. These people are impulse driven and typically make decisions on only the facts at hand. One might even say they are impulsive.
Conversations with a persuader will seem scattered and all over the map, touching on many topics including personal ones but only on the surface. If you want them to focus on you, you must be the shiny object in the room. Have you ever heard the term "Shiny Chicken" used? It is quite often associated with persuaders.
The third type is the supporter. These people are more of a quiet, reserved helper. They truly care about others, usually more than themselves. They typically don't make decisions fast and are fairly emotion driven.
When talking with supporters, the conversation will have a personal tone. You will want to bring out their feelings about topics. Make them feel like they're important. Do this by keeping eye contact and listening intently. They will be interested in the journey not just the destination.
Then there is the deep thinker. These people don't show much emotion, if any. They are usually wallflowers, but not like the supporters. Deep thinkers are taking it all in to analyze the situation. They are often trying to figure out who is worthy of their time or taking inventory of the happenings in the room. They are slow to make decisions and in trusting others. Deep thinkers are typically of above average intelligence.
Deep thinkers will be at an event with a purpose in mind. Try to uncover this, and you will unlock the conversation. These are people who don't usually talk much, but if you get them going, they might talk your ear off. You will want to pay close attention to details because they will be listening intently. If you want them to talk more, just ask in-depth questions. If you can successfully pull this off, you have accomplished something. And, furthermore, you will be on your way to winning their trust.
Be aware of who is around you. You should be alert to notice those people who are close by that either might want to join your conversation or look lost. There is no better way to make a lasting connection than to make someone feel welcome. Be careful! This action can be perceived as your not being interested in the conversation at hand.
One of the easiest ways to show that you are open to others is the way you stand in a group. Try to always have an opening in your group's circle.
Seek Out Valuable Contacts
When I talk about valuable contacts, I'm not necessarily talking about people in a dollars-and-cents way. I'm talking more in terms of connections and their value to you, whether it is personal or professional. Valuable contacts don't have to be high-dollar clients or customers—they can be people whose business acumen and advice you value. For the Annual Meeting, that would be the Top of the Table and Court of the Table members.
You might even want to do a little stalking before you go to the event. It will help you discover whom you want to meet and what they look like. Don't wait for people to come to you. If there are people in the room with whom you want to become acquainted, seek them out! MDRT members are very open to this.
If these are truly people who you find to be a valuable contact, then please don't forget to get a business card from them. Why? Well, when people give you their business card, it is as though they are saying, "Yes, you have my permission to follow up with me." And isn't that why you wanted to meet them face-to-face? To have that chance to build a sense of rapport with them? It just can't happen with only one meeting.
Take some time to digest what you have just done. If you can do it before you leave the venue, great. Sometimes being in the same space helps you remember some of the minute details. I highly encourage you to do this within 24 hours of the event. It is like performing a download of your brain. If you end up like me, attending multiple networking events in one day, you will thank me for this advice.
Executing the debrief will help remind you to do the things you promised or will be a means to remember a specific conversation with someone. Jot down your observations about the people for follow-up later. You may not remember those important things if you don't write them down soon after the event. It is key to include these details to help jog others' memories when doing your follow-up communication. They may not remember your name, but if you were successful, they will remember something you did or said. More importantly, though, is that they will feel that you were listening to them because you will be able to bring up that small, insignificant fact that they shared with you.
Preparation is the key to success at the meeting; however, the real value of the networking event is found in the follow-up. Be sure to keep any promises you may have made to individuals at the event. Perhaps you promised to email an article of interest or a connection to someone. I would always make sure that you give yourself more time than you think you will need to get the task done. Under-promise, over-deliver!
When was the last time that you received a handwritten note? How did it make you feel? Did you keep it? Of course you did. I have a file in my desk of just handwritten notes. They are a highly effective way to make an impression after the event. They will definitely make you memorable in a good way.
Sending an item of value will keep the conversation going and can be the foundation for an opportunity for collaboration.
Eleven years ago, when I was transitioning from being an in-house software developer to becoming a financial professional, I had really not done any networking at all. At my first networking events, I was awkward at best. I've learned a lot by just doing. Today, I can't believe how comfortable I am in the networking scene and that people actually seek me out to help them. I hope that these tips have been informative; maybe you even had an aha moment. It is exhilarating to be able to share these insights with you. At the end of the day, it is all about results.
Joseph M. Thomas is a five-year MDRT member from Birmingham, Alabama. He was the first “Pacesetter” award winner with the Principal Financial Group and has twice been named “Ambassador of the Year” by the Birmingham Business Alliance.