Of all the uncomfortable sales and marketing activities you suddenly have to handle, networking is probably the least favorite for introverts. Trying to make small talk is painful. You know some people can “work a room” without apparent effort, but that’s not you.
Here are some tips to make the experience more fun and more productive.
- Know why you’re there. It’s not just to eat lunch or make sales. (More on that in a moment.) Are you there to find contacts for your pipeline? To hire employees? Meet experts who can help you with key business tasks? Meet people who have expertise you want to gain? Knowing the purpose lets you target the right events. If you’re targeting prospects, visiting with your peers may not be helpful. But if you need expertise and a sounding board, your peers will be more useful than your customers.
- Don’t try to sell. The power of the network grows exponentially with its members. If you try to sell everyone you meet, you’ll not only not make (m)any sales, you’ll shut down sales to those peoples’ networks, which is where the real opportunity is.
- Meet people, not opportunities. Don’t treat people just as dollar signs. If there was no business involved– say you’re at your kid’s soccer game, talking to other parents– you’ll establish a human connection, not an economic connection. Do the same thing at business networking events. Of course, the central topic of conversation may be business, instead of excessive homework, but talk to people like people. Ask people about themselves. Be interested. Not just “what do you do?”, but “this may be a silly question, but is that like X?” or “Why does someone hire you instead of doing it themselves/using popular alternative/etc?” Ask questions to get a real understand of who they are and how their business works. People love to talk about this stuff, and I always learn more by listening than by talking.
- Offer to help. When you make a connection with someone you like, ask who is their ideal customer? If you know someone who is struggling with the problem they solve, offer to introduce them. (Depending on how comfortable you are, you can always ask the person already in your network if they want the introduction. If they do, obviously make the introduction. If not, just explain that the timing or the fit isn’t as good as you thought. The new contact will still appreciate that you tried.) Often, people are not good at describing their ideal customer. I have met people who say “any business” or “anyone with a website”, and stubbornly resist my attempts to get more specific. Unfortunately, these people don’t get introductions, because I am not confident in their ability to help people more than anyone else in the market. But if they say, “we help dentists get more patients from their websites”, then I know who might be a good fit, and I have a good reason to make an introduction to dentists. (The flip side of this is that people will often ask you the same question, and you should be ready with a very crisp answer.) Beyond introductions, if there’s something simple that you can do without cost, offer to do that. (Maybe you can’t optimize the dentist’s website, but you can offer to take a look at it and make some suggestions.) Keep in mind that the people who will be most eager to get your free help may be the least likely to pay you to actually solve their problems. It’s up to you have a way to be helpful that doesn’t take too much time.
- Follow up. So many good opportunities die because people get busy. If you’re organized and disciplined about following up, you can get much more out of networking than the people who work the room and collect all the cards and never follow up. I’ve had opportunities materialize years after meeting people, because I stayed in touch with people, because I introduced people, because I tried to be helpful. Don’t think of the goal as “get X business cards at this event”, but instead, “make X introductions over the next 3 months based on people I meet at this event.”
Networking is a long game. Don’t be one of those people who thrusts business cards at everyone they meet and doesn’t make a single actual connection. Be helpful to the network, and let the network work for you. You’ll take a lot of pressure off yourself and a lot of awkwardness out of the events. You’ll have more fun, and, before you know it, get more business.