I want to tell you my favorite networking story. It’s my favorite mostly because I come out looking like a total dork (and there’s nothing I like better than to laugh at myself!), but also because it was a real LIGHT BULB MOMENT…we get so few of those in life! Anyway, here goes.
Many years ago, when I was but a young entrepreneur, I joined a local Chamber of Commerce Leads Group. After my first few meetings and getting to know the other members, a gentleman asked me if I’d like to go to coffee so he could learn more about what I did. “This is it!”, thought my naïve, innocent self. “He’s going to hire me for his marketing. Damn, this networking thing is paying off already!”
So, we met for coffee. We talked. He asked me a lot of questions about my business – and I probably didn’t do a very good job of asking him anything about his business. But, even though he seemed super interested in what I did, he never quite got around to asking me to work for him. The cup of coffee was just a cup of coffee. I remember the moment that it clicked. Networking is all about connecting with other professionals and it’s not about selling your services.
As entrepreneurs and small business owners, we’re told that we need to be networking to grow our business. The unspoken implication is that networking will somehow generate the sales we need to succeed. It’s no surprise then, that many people make the leap from that to the assumption that networking is, in fact, another word for sales. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
I find it helpful to look at networking like dating. Unless you’re on a reality TV show, you wouldn’t go on a first date and expect to be engaged by the time the check arrives. You would expect to get to know the person, spend time with them, see if you’re compatible and if you have shared interests before you make a greater commitment. Just like dating, networking isn’t about making the sale the first time you meet someone, it’s about building a relationship. The focus in networking should be to find common ground in business and identify the best ways two businesses can work together.
Today, I’d like to leave you with six things I’ve learned about networking since that coffee all those years ago:
- Be of value. Think of networking as a way to be useful to others more than as a way for them to be useful to you. Instead of thinking “How can this person help me? What am I getting out of this meeting?” focus instead on “Who do I know that I can connect her with? How can I support her business?” And, follow up immediately with introductions between your contact and other connections if you’ve offered to do so.
- Be a resource to others. Ask yourself how you can help others grow using your strengths and connections. Follow up networking meetings by sharing articles or links to sources your contact will find interesting or helpful to their own business. This is not only helpful to your contact, but it positions you as a knowledgeable resource and expert in what you do.
- Be in it for the long haul. Networking isn’t about making the sale the first time you meet someone, it’s about building a relationship, and that takes time. You’ve heard the old adage “It’s easier to find a job when you have a job”. Networking is like that. If you walk into a first meeting intent on making a sale that day, you are going to project that onto your contact and they may react negatively. That’s sales, not networking. However, if you enter into the discussion with an open mind and heart and a true desire to simply learn more about their business interests, they will pick up on that energy and respond in kind.
- Be prepared. Know why you’re attending an event, or why you want to connect with an individual. Have a plan. Be specific when requesting a meeting. Don’t say “I want to pick your brain”, say “I’d like to hear about your experience of starting your business,” or “I’d like to get your opinion on professional development options.” Show up to a meeting with thoughtful questions. Have a response ready when your contact asks you “What can I do for you?” Don’t waffle, tell them what you hope to gain from your meeting – do you want referrals, a job reference, to partner with them on future projects? Be definite in your request and keep it simple.
- Be authentic. People do business with people they like. Be real and drop the prepared elevator speech. Learn how to adapt how you show up based on who you’re speaking to. Think about how you want to network and what feels good and natural to you. How to you naturally connect to other people in your life and how can you translate that to building professional relationships? Remember, you won’t build lasting connections with everyone you meet, and that’s okay. Focus on the people who resonate with you and what you offer, those are the people who will become invested in your success.
- Be open. Treat networking as an outlook on life and a way of looking at the world through new connections. Recognize that these interpersonal relationships are vital to your business success and your own growth as a business owner. Networking comes in all shapes and sizes – from developing new clients to generating referrals and building professional partnerships. You never know how someone you meet will help you achieve your success. Take the time to find out.