How well does your external networking strategy support your visibility and value proposition for your organisation so as to always keep you relevant?
External Networking (Audio)
What does “external” networking mean to you? Are you in your own business or in a “front office” role? How much do you rely on networking for your business? How well do you receive relevant “warm” referrals from your network? Does it reach just “local” people or does it have a global reach? How else do you use your network and how well does that work for you?
Background to external networking
By external networking I mean networking from the perspective of business development as well as the expansion of your own exposure and your companies business through word of mouth referrals.
And if you are self-employed, then whether you like it or not, a large part of your business success and growth will be determined by how much networking you practice and how good you get at it. One thing is for sure – sitting at home or in your office wishing for things to happen will not work. You will need to get “off the couch” and get out there amongst people.
Here are some basics for good “external” networking skills:
Do lots of it and get good at it.
Networking is like learning a skill. Practise makes perfect, or as Gary Player said best, “The more I practise, the luckier I get”.
Whether you are a professional in your own business or employed, and don’t already have one, I urge you create a names database of everyone you know. Anything under a 500 and I’d say you’re not serious.
If you are new in a town or a country, it is your choice whether you see that as a constraint or as an opportunity. If that is your case – it is simply a reality. Accept that and decide to do something about it. Each day you get out there and find ways that will work for you to meet people will take you a day closer to the success you are looking for. Accept that it is a skill you will learn and ask yourself: “I wonder how I’m going to do this?” and let your unconscious mind’s creativity feed you some ideas on how you are going to expand your list of names.
If you are employed, you can still do this exercise from the perspective of people you know that could be relevant to furthering your interests for your company and particularly for your role and objectives.
I was taught to go to the alphabetic professions listing section in the Yellow Pages directory and ask myself when for instance it showed Accountants: “who do I know that is an accountant” and how might they be able to connect me to the clients or business areas I am interested in?
Remember to brainstorm any associations. Then rank them in terms of their likelihood to be interested in what you do and their ability to refer you to someone that is….
Then call those most appropriate for your specific purpose for a coffee. The ones you prefer and like most or you can relate to best should go first and most frequently as per your ranking.
I try to meet with key people on my list a few times a year and the others at least once a year, or call those I can’t get face to face with.
The right time to ask for business
I don’t necessarily ask for business at networking coffees. I don’t want people to accept a coffee invitation to be feeling obliged to have to give me business. I want them to be interested in meeting with me to explore how we might be able to help each other further our objectives. My intention is to build and maintain relationships so that when they need someone or something, they call me because they know I’m a connector. Or that they call me for my services or that they refer prospects from their network to me.
However, I do always ask them who they might know that could be looking for a …. Sometimes they say “I am looking for someone like you” – that’s great. But remember that if they don’t respond for themselves to shoosh once you have asked the question of “who might they know that…” and don’t speak until they answer the question. Anything you say at that point will let them off the hook and allow them to avoid thinking of a referral for you.
Find out what’s happening
I suggest you exchange views of what’s happening in your markets or technology or projects or organisations or industries etc and always ask their opinion or views of what opportunities they might see. Ask them how to recognise a good referral for them in that space you are discussing. Expect the meeting to lead to opportunities where you can help them or you can collaborate or where they can help you.
I keep business cards. They usually have a short note on the back either where or how I met them, what they do etc. I keep them in groups relevant to what they do and how they fit into what I do. Many use a referdex system to keep them. Some use software to scan them into a contacts database. Some enter the details into a contacts database or a customer relationship management (CRM) tool. Figure out what will work for you so if you need to find someone or something for yourself or someone else you can do so quickly and easily. Most people will change companies etc over time, but their business card is still relevant to me in that they usually keep their mobile number, through which I can contact them again later.
I also usually add them to my Linked-In network, which I use somewhat like a CRM.
There are more networking organisations than you can point a stick at. AIM, AID, AIIA, BNI, TEC, Institutes, Associations, conferences, chambers, LINKEDIN, etc. Find what’s probably relevant and near you and go along to find out what works. Also, find out what memberships your company already has and see how you can “plug into them”. They won’t come to you. You will need to pro-actively decide what might be relevant for you and your organisation and then go out and “try them on”.
I also did lots of networking through IT vendors. They invite you to breakfasts and tell you what they want you to think is happening. Then you network your peers to find out what’s actually happening. Everybody wins.
External Networking is an Attitude, not an Event
Networking is an attitude, not an event. Aerial up. Always listening. Always interested. Always introduce yourself. Swap business cards. The objective is to ask questions’ of them so you learn what’s going on and they ask you what you do. Of course they also expect to learn from you what’s going on, if they are active networkers. Despite being there, people often aren’t actually networking.
Have a purpose and pursue it.
Know what you do and be able to outline it succinctly and confidently. Not contrived or canned. Natural, but polished. It should give the listener a good enough feel for who you are and what you do but not too much. Make sure they ask a follow up questions.
Mine is: “I’m a personal & executive coach. I coach business people through forks in their road. I also groom professionals in leadership and soft skills”. I usually get asked what that means. Great…
Handling yourself at an external networking event:
- Have a purpose. Why are you there?
- Find out who is there – a peek through the names list or nametags table is a must
- Who do you know, who to avoid, who you need to or want to meet?
- Make sure you talk to “those that count” for your purpose
- Try to introduce yourself or get introduced to “those that count” that you haven’t met
- Keep moving – don’t get stuck with one person or group
- Dress for success
- Be excited about what you do : 90% aren’t
- Smile and relax
- I used to tell my kids – don’t worry about what they think of you – they don’t – they are too busy worrying about what you think of them
- Introduce yourself confidently – firm handshake. Ladies too, right?
- Look them in the eye confidently but not arrogantly
- Repeat their name as often as you can (remind yourself through associations)
- Have them help you pronounce or spell difficult names – it helps you remember them
- Choose a group to join, but without interrupting.
- Listen and nod as you get into their conversation – they will invite you in
- Ask questions all can probably relate to in that circle
- Find something to remember those you met by and for them to remember you. Write it down (on their card) afterwards.
- Always ask how you will recognise a good referral for them.
A golden rule is that when you are talking to someone, actively listen and give them your full attention. It is very rare to be completely listened to. Get really good at this. It is clearly a differentiator. Most will be distracted and watch for others etc. People remember you for good active listening and it increases the likelihood of them calling you back.
Thank you mail
I like to send a thank you email after meeting someone to say I enjoyed meeting them (if I did) and look forward to keeping in touch. If I volunteered something eg a title of a book etc, write it to them. Thank them for anything they’ve undertaken to do for you – thereby reminding them.
Not networking is not working
Finally, it is important to devote consistent time to networking.
Whether employed or in your own business, have a plan to contact a certain number of people for coffee each month. Get into the habit of “staying in touch”, not just when you need something. Plan to attend a networking session each month. Set some goals as to how many business cards you can collect or referrals you can expect to generate.
Become known as a connector.
Finally, I would like to challenge you. Why don’t you set a goal to go out and find ways to introduce yourself to 10 people in a set period of time (preferably in your domain) to get into a conversation that enables you to swap business cards. If you want to read more about this you can at A Networking Challenge.
My more willing clients also respond to the challenge of setting a goal from time to time of going out deliberately to “get something for nothing” from a stranger. That keeps you sharp and willing to practice getting out of The Comfort Zone, which is the start you require for learning any new skill….
So why not use the impending Festive Season to focus on your network and practice some skills that will have you Hitting the ground running when everyone returns to work in the new year. This is the time for setting goals, right? Why not set some really good networking goals and see how much you will benefit from their realization when you do? What if you could?