As a time-strapped businessperson, how do you figure out which networking events to attend and which you should let go by the wayside?
A networking strategy can help you decide which events to attend. Here are three easy—and definitely essential—questions you need to answer in order to create a plan that will work for you.
Question #1: Who are my best prospects?
You’d be surprised at the number of business professionals who can’t define their best prospects. Most of them either reply, “Everyone!” –or with some other vague description that sounds good at first but doesn’t offer specifics. This is why business professionals so often find themselves running all over town trying to attend every networking event that comes down the pike.
Since they don’t have time to follow up immediately with most of the people they meet, they often don’t get as much business as they’d like; and then they throw their hands in the air and wail, “Networking doesn’t work for me!”
But as a smart, enterprising businessperson, you already know that networking works. It’s just a matter of developing a strategy that puts you into contact with the right people.
If you’re not sure who those folks might be for your business, go back and take a look at your past client list. What industries were they in? How long had they been in business? Were your clients even businesses to begin with, or were they consumers?
Once you’ve put together a profile of the people you’ve worked with in the past, pick up the phone and run it by a few trusted friends and colleagues. People who are close to you often have insights into patterns that you tend to overlook because you’re busy with day-to-day operations. Once you get that nailed down, you can go on to the next question.
Question #2: Where can I meet my best prospects?
Networking doesn’t mean just hopping into the car and attending the next chamber of commerce event. Yes, the chamber and other business associations are excellent means of finding and meeting new prospects, and we recommend them to anyone as a starting point.
But as your business evolves and you begin targeting specific niche markets, there are other venues that fall outside typical networking events. And that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we’re going to discuss here.
Generally speaking, if you’re trying to meet more small business owners, you’ll want to spend time at the chamber of commerce or a local business association, or with a referral group. Not only do these groups have exactly the type of audience you want to meet, but with referral groups, and BNI in particular, there’s a system in place that helps you help others to get more referrals for you.
If you’re looking to meet representatives from bigger corporations in your area, we recommend service clubs, nonprofit groups, and volunteer work. Another good way to come into contact with those folks is through homeowner associations, most of which meet at least once a month. It’s a great way to get in contact with folks who are in corporations but don’t attend typical networking events.
If your business is geared more towards consumers, then getting involved with your kids’ events—Little League, Boy Scouts, and so forth—is another good way to meet the right people.
If you’re that real estate agent who wants to meet first-time homebuyers and people interested in moving downtown, you’ll probably find more prospects by networking at downtown events. It doesn’t matter which event, as long as it’s being held in the city center. That should bring you into contact with people who might be thinking about moving out of their apartment and into a house. Look also for networking events likely to be attended by young professionals, since these are the people most likely to be living in an apartment while accumulating the disposable income to buy a downtown condo or home.
For the management consultant who wants to meet people in million-dollar companies, we’d recommend networking at service clubs or nonprofit groups. Why? The directors and CEOs of large companies are less likely to be at your local chamber’s after-hours event than in civic organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Kiwanis, or Rotary. We also recommend trying to get on your service club’s board or leadership team; that way you’re interfacing with more of the movers and shakers of your community.
Careful, though: If you’re too direct in these clubs, too obviously looking for business relationships, you won’t be welcomed. These groups are more civic- than business-oriented, which means you’ll have to establish your credibility through community-oriented activities rather than business deals.
Question #3: Who, exactly, do I want to meet?
Most people are not well connected in any practical sense. However, even accomplished networkers sometimes fail to realize that they’re closer to a much-desired contact than they imagine.
The principles behind making the right kind of connection—summed up in the simple aphorism “You don’t know who they know”—are ably outlined by Dr. Wayne Baker at Humax in a referral tool he calls the Reciprocity Ring.
The idea is that the greater the number of networks you’re connected with, the greater the chance that there’s a short chain of contacts between you and anyone you’d care to name. All you have to do is recognize that fact and ask a few people a specific question or two. The answers will either put you in direct contact with a prospect or lead you in the direction of the networking events you need to attend.
Even if you can’t name the people you want to meet, the better you can describe them, the greater the chance that you’ll get to meet your ideal contact. The secret ingredient in this principle is specificity.
The way to meet the unknown contact is to be as specific as possible without closing out all possible variations. You can do this by starting your question like this: “Who do you know who . . . ?” You complete the sentence with specifics: “Who do you know who is a new parent?” “Who do you know who belongs to an organization that builds houses for the homeless?”
By asking for a specific kind of contact, you focus the other person’s attention on details that are more likely to remind him of a specific person than if you asked, “Do you know anyone who needs my services?”
Finally, remember that it’s important to surround yourself with quality business contacts, since the best way to your ideal contact very often is through another contact.
Called the “father of modern networking” by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI, the world’s largest business networking organization. His newest book, Networking Like a Pro, can be viewed at www.IvanMisner.com. Dr. Misner is also the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute, an international referral training company.