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Better Networking. By Dawn Smith

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NetworkingDespite the rise of online networking, face-to-face meetings are still key in business relationships. Dawn Smith asks gurus for some tips on business networking.





More business is won through face-to-face meetings than any other method, according to recent research by Vodafone UK. As reported by TrainingZone in November, around 57% of people win business as a result of meeting someone in person, compared to 34% via email. The research goes on to suggest that online networking may be replacing the phone as a ‘remote’ networking tool, but there is still no substitute for meeting in person.

While many people recognise the importance of networking, it’s not a natural or comfortable skill for most. “90% of people are reluctant or unnatural networkers,” says Heather White, author of 'Networking For Business Success', and founder of the ‘Magic of Networking’ consultancy service. Often the biggest barrier to overcome is the idea that it’s hard work, she adds. “People worry they will get rejected.”

“You will feel more comfortable talking to people if you think about what you can give to them, and not just what you can get out of them.”

Judith Perle, co-founder of Management Advantage

Andy Lopata, co-author of And Death Came Third - The Definitive Guide to Networking and Speaking in Public, advises networkers to swallow the fear and remind themselves that “most people share the same fear, including experienced networkers”. But of course, that’s easier said than done.

When you walk in the joint

Old hands at networking will have developed their own basic strategies for making first introductions, but examples suggested by Andy include talking to people you know at first, and then asking them to introduce you to others. Also talk to people who are on their own, as they will almost certainly welcome the approach.

Conversation openers don’t have to be about business, adds Andy. Starting with “What do you do?” is as bad as using “Do you come here often?” as a chat up line, he comments. Try talking about something else, such as the event or the organisation behind it. But don’t say anything critical about the event, warns speaker and author Roy Sheppard, whose networking books include 'Meet Greet & Prosper', and who is currently developing a video-based e-learning website (eConsult.tv) containing a networking course.

Breaking into a group requires a different approach. Both Roy Sheppard and Andy Lopata advise standing on the edge and listening, then at an appropriate pause joining in - perhaps by asking a question. One thing to avoid is approaching two people in discussion, says Andy. “They may be building a rapport or discussing business.”

If you want to meet a particular person, try asking the organiser to introduce you, says Roy Sheppard. “Explain why you want to meet them and why they might be interested in meeting you.”

Moving on

If starting a conversation is tricky, then ending one can provoke squirming in the most confident networker. Roy Sheppard advises being honest, rather than using a white lie such as ‘I have to go home now’, and then being spotted half an hour later. “Just say it’s been great to talk to you and I’d like to follow up, but I want to meet some more people,” he says. Offer to introduce the person to others if you can. Honesty is also the best policy if you’re breaking away from a group. “Don’t just slink off,” he warns.

“Networking is not about selling; networking is about people,” he says. “Pursue the relationship, not the sale.”

Roy Sheppard, author

Closing a conversation is especially tricky if you’ve approached someone who was on their own. “Try not to leave them on their own again because you’ll just return them to the same state you found them,” says Andy Lopata. “Move on with them and introduce them to someone else.”

Getting the point

People feel a lot happier about networking when they understand that it’s about mutual help, says Judith Perle, co-founder of Management Advantage, which runs networking workshops. “You will feel more comfortable talking to people if you think about what you can give to them, and not just what you can get out of them” she says.

Roy Sheppard also advocates this strategy: “Initially, forget what’s in it for you. Do this by offering opportunities to others – information, referrals and recommendations with little or even no desire for ‘a return favour’.” He adds that one of the biggest mistakes people make at events is going into ‘sales mode’. Andy Lopata agrees. “Networking is not about selling; networking is about people,” he says. “Pursue the relationship, not the sale.”

Social gaffes

If networking is about building relationships, then an obvious starting point is to pay attention to whoever you’re talking to. “Being interested in people and listening to them is crucial,” says Judith Perle. But many people at networking events constantly look over the shoulder of the person they’re in conversation with, planning who they’re going to speak to next, says Andy Lopata. Some people do this without even realising it, comments Roy Sheppard, who adds that it’s his ‘pet hate’. If you’re on the receiving end, he suggests following the person’s gaze over your shoulder. That makes a subtle point and often brings them back to the conversation.

One reason why room-gazers start rubber-necking is that they write off the person they’re talking to very quickly on the basis of preconceptions. “Don’t judge whether someone is worth talking to just on their name badge, job title or company,” says Andy. You may write off someone who could be very helpful to you, or a ‘perfect introducer’.

Another common networking mistake is failing to follow up on promises you’ve made. Sometimes this may be down to poor memory, rather than prevarication. Andy advises writing down on the back of a person’s business card what you’ve agreed to do, there and then, rather than waiting until later. Even if you haven’t promised anything, it’s important to stay in touch, says Judith Perle. “One night stands aren’t usually very productive,” she observes.

Forgetting someone’s name can feel like an embarrassing ‘no-no’, but if you can’t remember after only meeting them once, just be honest, advises Roy. Tips for remembering names include mentally spelling them, imagining a person’s name tattooed on their forehead, associating them with someone famous with the same name, or asking for their business card so you can read it. Andy Lopata suggests that if you’re attending an event where you’re likely to see people you’ve met before, look at the attendance list and review the contacts you’ve made previously, so you’re better prepared.

Having a plan

However smooth a networking operator you may become, the process won’t be effective unless you have a strategy, says Heather White. As well as learning how to network, you need to think about what you are networking for and what you want to achieve from it, she says. For example, as a trainer you may want to share best practice with your peer group, focus on internal networking in your organisation, or win new business, depending on your role. If you don’t have a strategy it will be a scattergun approach and not very satisfying. You won’t get anything from it and it will be a waste of time.”

Contacts

Andy Lopata: www.lopata.co.uk
Magic of Networking: www.magicofnetworking.co.uk

Management Advantage: www.manadvan.com
Roy Sheppard: www.royspeaks.com and www.eConsult.tv

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