I hear complaints from sellers and business owners all the time about how much time and effort they’ve wasted attending networking events. The conclusion for a huge number is that networking events are no longer part of their prospecting activity.
That’s unfortunate because networking events really can be great places to find and connect with prospects. The problems most have encountered with networking events is they’ve never been taught a systematic, disciplined format for managing and working these events and without having a way to manage the event, they become frustrated as they realize all they’ve done to date is waste their time.
Typically, the frustrations and wasted time arise from three fundamental issues:
- Investing time at the wrong networking events
- overblown expectations
- not having a plan of attack
Unfortunately, many, especially those who are not networking junkies, attend these functions with the hope of leaving the event with a whole stack of business cards of great prospects. When their expectations are not met, they conclude that networking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and decide their time is better spent elsewhere.
Besides unrealistic expectations about the number of prospects they’ll meet, a great many attend networking events without thinking through what their real goal is. Unless you are selling a relatively common consumer or business commodity, you’re not going to sell at these events. And since you can’t sell, what should be your primary goal? Mine, when I attend these events, is not to talk about myself and what I do but to listen and ask questions, to learn as much as I can about the other person in order to qualify them, to begin building a relationship with them, and to have them tell me what issues and problems of theirs I’m going to address when we do get around to discussing who I am and what I do (which, by the way, won’t be at the event).
In addition, most attendees waste the majority of their networking time. Rather than an organized plan to maximize their benefit from the event, they simply attend hoping to “run into” prospects.
Yet, if you attend regularly and with realistic expectations, networking can eventually pay great dividends. There are three “secrets” to making networking pay:
1. Know Where You’re Going
Knowing who is likely to attend the event you are considering is as important as attending the event. If you are considering going to an event you have never attended before, try to get a copy of the host organization’s member roster. By examining the membership directory, you can get a fairly good idea of the type of people you can expect to meet. If it appears there are a reasonable number of people and businesses of interest, plan on attending. If you can’t get a copy of their member directory, call the organization and ask—most won’t mind the inquiry and will be happy to give you as much information as they can.
2. Know Why You’re Going
Go with a definite number of contacts you want to make. Determine how many good contacts you will need in order to make the investment of time worthwhile. Depending on your particular product or service, that number may be only one or two—or may be much higher at five or six. By establishing realistic, objective criteria, you can easily determine whether or not your time was well spent and whether or not you want to attend the event again in the future.
3. Have a System for Working the Event
For most business owners and salespeople, the real networking event killer isn’t so much who is in attendance or even their own unrealistic expectations, but rather the time they waste during the event.
Working a networking room requires planning and a clear vision of how you will spend your time. I and many of my clients that I’ve taught the following networking method have found it to be easy and very effective. The goal of this process is to spend the time identifying quality prospects, learning as much about them as possible in a short amount of time, and once you believe you have a viable prospect, setting a phone or lunch meeting with them.
Arrive about 15 minutes before the official event start time. Wear a large, easy to read, high quality, permanent nametag that features your first and last name, not just your first name (your company name is the least important part of the name tag as you want them to remember you, not your company), Of course, have lots of business cards. Business cards should be blank on the back. Wear clothing with two easy to reach pockets.
Station yourself close to the entry door—close enough that people might mistake you for one of the hosts. Greet each person as he or she enters. Nothing more than a greeting—and, hopefully, noticing their company name. All you want is to hear a name, put a name to a face and to make a quick judgment as to whether they might be a prospect.
When arrivals begin to slow, begin your progression around the room. Move in one direction—left or right. Greet the first person or group of people you meet. This round of conversations should be short—two to three minutes at most. Your goal is to introduce yourself and learn as much as you can in a very short span of time about the person or persons you’ve just met. Don’t clutter the conversation with information about yourself—keep everything focused on the person or the persons you are speaking with. Your goal at this event isn’t to sell, it’s to qualify prospects. This will be your second meeting with many of these people, although you will not remember their names. Two meetings=two opportunities to put a name with a face.
Since many, if not most, will offer you a business card, you will begin to segregate cards into an interest stack and a non-interest stack. When you meet someone you believe you’d like to get to know better—i.e., a potential prospect put their business card in your right-hand pocket. Those you don’t believe are prospects, put in your left-hand pocket. This system allows you to immediately find the cards of those you want to reconnect with during the event without having to try to remember their name. Simple: Right pocket card=reconnect; left pocket=don’t reconnect with today.
If you meet someone you believe might be a real prospect for you, before moving on to another group let them know of your interest in learning more about their business and ask their permission to contact them via a phone call at a later date. Once they agree, take one of your business cards and on the blank reverse side, write the day and an hour span of time during which you will call: “Thursday, March 12 between 10:30-11:30.” This day and time will be the same for everyone you meet that you want to call. It keeps you from having to remember when you will call, but because it is an hour span, you’ll have time to make several calls without concern that you won’t keep your appointment.
Now, move to the next group and continue in this manner for the majority of the event. About 30 to 45 minutes prior to the end of the event, go into your last phase. The last phase is taking the few cards in your right-hand pocket and seeking to reconnect with those people. This will be your third chance to meet them and to put a name and face together. In addition, since it will be your third meeting, they’ll begin to feel like they know you and they will probably greet you as a friend rather than as new acquaintance. Just as you are implanting their name and face in your mind through multiple meetings with them during the event, you’re planting your name and face in their mind.
This conversation will be a little more in-depth, but, again, keep the focus on the other person. During this conversation move the conversation to the point that instead of a phone call on Thursday, you can invite them to lunch or to a coffee meeting. If you can’t set a meeting, prior to moving to the next person, again reiterate the phone call on Thursday and give them another business card with the same information written on the back.
On Thursday, make your phone calls and close for a get to know one another meeting.
This structure allows you to “meet” a prospect three times during the course of the event, set up a definite telephone conversation—and very possibly a lunch meeting–and help both you and the prospect move from the “just met” stage to acquaintance stage very quickly, and all without having to remember any details during the course of the event.
The goal of the conversations is to learn as much as you can about the person you are meeting, not to talk about yourself. You’re there to learn and to qualify. You can’t sell at a short networking event unless you’re selling a commodity, but you can sure learn a great deal and identify new prospects. But to do that you have to listen a great deal more than talk.
Since people love to talk about themselves and if you get them talking about themselves and their company you can learn how to laser focus the conversation when it does get around to what you do, give them the freedom to open up as much as possible. In addition, never finish a conversation with a real prospect. Intentionally leave the conversation hanging—and then invite a further phone or lunch conversation. I never really talk about what I do until the lunch meeting. By that time I’ve learned a great deal about the other person and I can tailor my discussion of what I do to the exact issues they’ve disclosed. Instead of some weak, general elevator speech, I give a pointed response to their needs.
If you keep your expectations reasonable and focus you time during the event on the few true prospects you meet, you’ll find your time at networking events to be both more enjoyable and profitable.
Paul McCord -- Salesandmanagementblog.com