Making the right connections is key to growing a business. Stuart Wilks offers some tips on how to work the room and make it work for you.
Networking – the very word used to strike fear into my heart. “You should do more networking,” they’d say, and I’d think: “You should leave me alone and find someone else to terrorise.” But over time, and with practice, like anything else, it becomes far easier.
More importantly, it’s an essential part of growing any business. Business development and networking are not marketing. They can be a result of it or linked to it, but marketing activities are quite different from the relationship-building associated with networking and business development activities.
I’ve had the privilege over the past 18 years to experience a range of styles of what a colleague used to call “making friends”. He was right. People want to do business with people. More importantly, people want to do business with people they like.
Most people have, at some point, managed to find a girlfriend, boyfriend, or both. It’s unlikely they found that person by “selling” something – at least not consciously. Generally, they’ve interacted with people until they met someone they can connect with easily. I often perceive networking as a similar process. You’re unlikely to immediately meet a million-dollar client by walking into a room, but over time that relationship might develop.
A mate of mine once told me he’d played golf with someone in the automotive industry in the US. He didn’t particularly think it’d be helpful for business. However, it turned out that automotive man knew the head of one of the biggest property developers in Dubai. Next time my friend played golf, it was with someone he could never otherwise have made contact with, and an invaluable asset to the business.
How to beat the terror
Networking events can be terrifying. Psychologists have concluded the feeling of terror on walking into the room is caused by a fear of rejection. But how to beat the terror? One tip I got from a female networking guru was to talk to women. Women often seem far more comfortable talking to people at such events. Or take a friend. It makes a huge difference to know you’re headed out with a partner in crime.
Then, strike up a conversation. A firm handshake (there are some terrible ones out there), then: Hello, what do you? What does your firm do? etc. The rest will usually follow without effort. Don’t just talk shop, though. What do they do for fun? How many kids do they have? If you can find a connection beyond the workplace, so much the better.
Talking to someone a few days ago, I discovered they’re renovating a horsebox to turn it into a mobile bar. I know a beer wholesaler, so was able to help make some introductions, aside from the construction law conversation we were having.
Leaving a conversation can be challenging – a colleague had the incredible ability to melt away. Nobody knew how he did it, but at some point people would realise he was no longer there. Unless you’re equipped with this skill you’ll need an exit strategy. Honesty is usually the best policy – a polite “Would you excuse me, I just want to have a quick word with X” will go down far better than “Oh, I just need the toilet” before you head to your best friend.
And of course, there’s the follow-up. There’s no point in chatting away at an event and not doing anything else after that. Adding the contact on LinkedIn is a good starting point, but it is just a start.
I had a really interesting follow-up from a recent networking event – the chap phoned me up and suggested we catch up for coffee. I’d usually try and at least email to make the suggestion, and then you can add a link to your website or a brochure to the email.
Most importantly, keep the conversation going. Usually, work comes from the last person we spoke to. If you were last through the door, last in the inbox, you’ll be first in the mind of the person who needs your skills.
Stuart Wilks is director of Limeslade Consulting, a consultancy that focuses on marketing and business development for the built environment and legal sectors and is holding a seminar in London on 28 September.