Networking for the Unsure
Imagine this scene: You walk into a coffee shop and look around for someone sitting by themselves, someone waiting at a table with two chairs. You have a vague idea of the person you’re looking for, but you’ve been wrong before, so you proceed carefully.
You see a woman who might be who you’re there to meet and walk up to ask, “Jennifer?” She nods, you shake hands, and then sit together to get acquainted.
This might sound like a Tinder date, but it isn’t; this is a networking meeting.
Sometimes, people get a bad taste in their mouth at the term “networking.” For them, the idea of sitting down with someone they don’t know and having a conversation about business is not appealing. Many people lump it together with the concept of “selling,” and perceptions of the stereotypical salesperson are well established.
But if you are a freelancer, or you want to start a side hustle, or maybe you don’t like your boss and want to go out on your own, you need a way of getting the word out. Waiting for the business to simply come to you is a sure way to end up crawling back to your old job, and nobody wants to do that. Even if the idea of networking is scary or unpleasant, most people will agree it’s preferable to cold-calling.
Most people start out with a very small network, usually just friends and coworkers. But if you make the decision that cold-calling isn’t working, either because you can’t tolerate picking up the phone one more time or the ROI just isn’t there, then you have to grow your network.
But before you just start randomly reaching out to people, you need to develop very clear goals and a plan to reach them.
These goals will evolve over time after you start gathering data on how your networking practice is working. You might find that you need to increase the amount of people you reach out to in a week, or it might be that your goals aren’t as reasonable as you hoped. Some goals you should consider are:
- how large your network needs to be to see results in your sales pipeline,
- the industry or influence of the people you’re reaching out to,
- how large their network is,
- how closely connected to somebody you need to be to feel comfortable networking with them,
- and how the networking connections will be mutually beneficial.
Once you have a basic plan and place to start, here are some other important things to keep in mind. These tips will keep your calendar full and money coming in.
- You are not selling to the person; you are forming a relationship. This isn’t a sales call, this is an opportunity to form a relationship with someone who will eventually (hopefully!) send potential clients to you. If you find yourself asking discovery questions or offering advice or (even worse) your services, STOP. It can be hard to turn the need to sell off, but if you don’t, the person will be less willing to keep the relationship going.
- Get to know each other, don’t just talk business. Much like with #1, this can be tricky. While you want to have a relationship, it’s still a relationship based on business. But it’s important to build up at least some personal connection as well. You’ll both remember each other more, and that personal connection will lead to a more pleasant, familiar memory when they’re thinking about possible referrals. Try to spend the first 15-20 minutes just getting to know each other: hobbies, family—you know, friendly conversation. It will make the relationship stronger and gives you topics to mention when you follow up with them (more on following up later.)
- “Talk less, smile more.” Aaron Burr may have been the (debatable) villain in Hamilton, but he’s right about this. Just like with any conversation, make sure you’re practicing active listening during your networking meetings. Resist the instinct to be transactional. Remember that a conversation is a two-way street; you don’t want that person to leave the meeting feeling like you talked the entire time and dominated the conversation. After getting to know each other, find out about their business. Ask how you can help them, and not in a “what can I sell you” kind of way. Find out what kind of networking partner they need. Just like a conversation, referrals go both ways. If you’re not reciprocating, you’ll get dropped one by one.
- Block out your calendar. A lot of people have spoken about the awesomeness of living out of your calendar and time blocking to be as productive as possible, and networking is no different. Setting expectations around time is good for you and your networking partner. It’s also beneficial to block out time each week for sending introductions and meeting requests. You’ll hit your goals more reliably and everybody will have better expectations for when you’re available.
*BONUS* When you’re sending networking requests or meeting plans to somebody, use a tool like Book Like a Boss so that they can book time according to your schedule. They’ll have the freedom to choose a time that works for them, and you won’t feel obligated to scramble for time that you don’t have.
- Nurture the relationship. Just like with your clients, follow-up is important. Sometimes it will take multiple meetings or conversations before they think to refer people to you. Or they might make referrals quickly, but then they start to drop off if it’s been a while since you’ve chatted. And as stated above, make sure you’re referring people to them whenever you can.
- Buy the drinks! Of course, this probably doesn’t apply right now when most meetings are taking place on Zoom and the like. But things will go back to normal, and this is important to keep in mind. Think of this as a tax you pay to keep your business running. If you invite somebody out for coffee or a beer, you should pay. Some people might feel uncomfortable or give you a little pushback. Just respond with a smile and “next time, you can pay.” That’ll usually make them feel better about it.
- Don’t forget your goal. While your main focus, especially in the first one or two meetings, is building a relationship, it’s important not to end your networking meeting until you make “an ask.” Let them know who your best referrals would be, and ask if they know anybody. If interested, we have a guide with templates and advice for doing this in a natural and comfortable way. More on that below.
While networking can help you create long-lasting business and partnerships, remember that it is a long game. It could take months before you start closing deals from referrals sent your way from your network. But you have to stick with it because it DOES WORK.
The face of networking has changed a bit with COVID-19, but the practice itself is still just as important and relevant as always. And the basics are still there; it’s only the in-person aspect that has shifted.
LinkedIn is an incredible resource for building and growing your network. I have a guide that outlines the best ways to do this with templates and specific strategies. If you’re interested, contact us here.
When everything is back to normal, networking groups are a great way of meeting people and connecting. Find one with a clear agenda and involved members that are motivated to help each other. If your area doesn’t have one, start your own. If you’re looking for one, other people are too.
And don’t be afraid to just go out there and do it. You’re in sales. You talk to people all the time. This doesn’t have to be any different.