Business Networking at Events
by David Walters
Business networking at events is a very necessary part of our overall Business Development program and yet it strikes fear into many people. I do this frequently and find it amusing to see the wide-eyed frightened look on the faces of the shy or inexperienced.
Here are some tips to help you to maximize your effectiveness and comfort while networking at a group event:
- Bring plenty of business cards. I usually carry about 20 cards. You never really know how many you will need. Better to have too many with you. I carry my cards in one pocket and place the cards I gather in another pocket. That way you do not reach in and pull out someone else’s card.
- Try to determine the demographics of the group you will be meeting. Are they business owners, vendors or service providers? Could they be CFO’s or COO’s but not CEO’s? Are there going to be more CPA’s or Attorneys based on the organization model? Try to ask someone who has been to the group to get Intel about who you should expect to meet there. Look up the website of the group. What is their purpose or mission?
- When selecting a group to attend, determine dates and times of meetings, costs, visitation rules and membership requirements. Some groups have liberal visitation rules which gives you time to explore and experience the group without necessarily joining. Some only allow 1-3 visits before a membership decision must be made.
- After getting to know a given group, decide if it is beneficial for referrals or direct business for you. If so, consider becoming more involved as a committee member or board member. You will get more out of it that way and develop closer relationships with key people. If it is not beneficial, move on and seek other groups that may be more productive for new business. Avoid high cost networking groups. There are plenty that are less expensive.
- Always wear a name badge. People actually cruise the room reading badges to see who you are and to decide if they want to stop and talk to you. If no plastic name badge is available or you forgot to bring yours, use a paper name tag.
- Smile and make eye contact. It is more comfortable for other people to approach you if you look friendly. You also make them more comfortable when you approach them if you reflect a friendly demeanor. Many people look away or look down or have a scared look and they become un-approachable. Un-approachable people do not get new business opportunities. Remember that “A smile increases your Face Value”. Be aware of what your facial expression is saying about you. Don’t be looking around for the next Target while talking to the person in front of you. Stay focused on them while engaged.
- Look for people on the periphery of the group who are holding up the wall or not engaging. They are likely shy or not comfortable with the event and will appreciate if you approach them in a non-threatening way. They are secretly hoping someone will talk to them. You can be their hero by doing so. Everyone wants to fill valued and engaged, even if they don’t take the initiative.
- Have your elevator speech perfected. Keep it short but informative and interesting. Practice with someone you like. It will be more comfortable to get it wired that way. It needs to roll off your tongue without effort.
- When you first enter the event, if you are early, go inside but stay near the entrance. Everyone must therefore pass by you. If there are already people inside, stop just inside the door and scan the room. You need to determine who are the best targets, by observing body language, smiles, eye contact, or maybe they just look cute or interesting. Any reason is a good reason. Just start somewhere. Talk to someone, anyone.
- Be aware of “Proxemics”: Proxemics is a subcategory of the study of nonverbal communication along with haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as "the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture”. I suggest you Google it. Proxemics is the study of positioning and touch in social gatherings. If people are actively talking while facing directly at each other, it is a position of engagement and possibly opposition. Do not approach people heavily engaged or facing this way. Look for clusters of people in a relaxed posture and with an open stance allowing others to come into the group. Always shake hands web to web with matching pressure while looking into the eyes of the other person. Don’t crush their hand. Some people are huggers, but usually only after they know you. If you are going to hug, make it an engaging and relaxed hug, but not for too long. Stiff hugs and hugs that last too long may give the wrong impression. Don’t hug someone with whom you do not already have a comfort zone, unless they offer the hug first.
- CAUTION: It is human nature to go up to someone you already know because it is comfortable and less threatening. This is OK for a short while to get you warmed up or to touch base with someone who may be a good referral source, friend, or business acquaintance. If there is not a strong potential for imminent referrals or direct business dealings, touch them and move on. Old Japanese proverb: “Don’t waste bait on caught fish”. You are in a “target rich environment” (Top Gun Movie reference). Find your new targets.
- When approaching a new Target, have an opening line ready. I smile, make eye contact, extend a handshake and say: “Hello my name is David, what brings you here today?” or “What do you do?”, or “How is your day going so far?” I try to read their name badge first and call them by their first name. “Hello Joe, tell me about XYZ Company?”, or “What do you do at XYZ Company?” Or “What kind of business is XYZ Company”? I usually wait until they ask me about my business or what I do before I tell them my elevator pitch or give them my card. Don’t force cards on people. I even ask if I may give them my card before pulling it out. Always ask for their card. When given to you, take a moment to contemplate it as a courtesy to them. Comment on their office location or title or ask about the correct pronunciation of their name. Say something to show you have read it and are interested. I learned this from a business practices class in Japan.
- Whatever you do, get them talking about themselves and their business or employer. People are most comfortable talking about themselves. That’s what they came there to do. They were actually hoping someone would ask. They are happy you did ask. Another of my favorite sayings: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. If you give someone else the grace of listening to them and actively hearing them, they will be much more willing to hear what you have to say.
- Active listening: This doesn’t mean making eye contact and nodding your head while you are actually thinking about what you are going to say when they stop talking, after which you pounce on them when the first small break in their conversation occurs. You will not absorb their words if this is your approach. Active listening means eye contact and nodding, but also making short comments as they talk and repeating their words back to them as appropriate to clarify something they said. “So what you are saying is…..?” You can also ask follow-on questions about what you just heard. You can keep someone talking for hours, never say a word about yourself, and at the end, they feel validated that it was a good encounter and they like you. You will also learn much more about them. Once a comfort level has been established with this person, I love to ask “What do you do for fun?” Bring it down to a more personal level. Ask about their family or kids or vacation coming up. They will remember you more for this personal touch than the other person who just tossed out the elevator pitch.
- Obviously, we cannot just listen for the entire encounter without saying something about ourselves. Pick your timing carefully. Try to tie something they say into a solution you offer. They will usually ask you more about your business or the market you serve or yourself or whatever. Be prepared to respond with well scripted answers.
- Try to use tasteful humor, if appropriate. Put them at ease. Use compliments about their tie or scarf or necklace, but don’t come across as insincere. Keep it short. Topics such as sports, recent news, or other areas of interest can be good ice breakers.
- Ask them how you can help them? Who is their ideal client or referral? What is the biggest challenge for them right now? They will appreciate you taking an interest and even more if you can offer solutions. Ask not what they can do for you, ask what you can do for them. (Yes, I stole from President Kennedy).
- PERFORM TRIAGE: It is very important to evaluate the strength of the Target you have chosen ASAP. If it is not someone that seems beneficial to you for future business, keep it short but polite and move on. One mistake many make, is to latch on to someone and continue talking with them too long. This is often an attempt to appear busy without the discomfort of having to start another conversation with the next Target. Remember that the person you are talking to wants to meet other people as well. We must all remember to be like honey bees going from flower to flower, sampling their nectar, leaving some pollen and enjoying the sweet taste of success in the end. When I am ready to move on I’ll say: “It’s been great chatting with you, I hope you enjoy the event.” or “I’d better let you move on and meet some other people here.” This makes it about them and not just you wanting to get away. Also keep in mind that they have other people to meet. Respect their time. Notice body language or eye movement to tell when they are ready to move on.
- If you want to meet with them again because they are a good Target, ask if you can call them for a follow-up meeting, or coffee or lunch sometime? Most will say yes. Make sure you have their card. In fact, if you have a pen and space on their card, jot down notes about the conversation to spark your memory for the follow-up call. Don’t do this while standing up networking, but do so ASAP when you get to your car or when you sit down at the table in the event. It really helps to have some details about the person or their business.
- FOLLOW-UP: I try to send a follow-up email to all hot referral sources or prospects by the next day if possible. If there is a detail you gleaned during your meeting, include it. Like - “Have a great trip with your family or good luck with that budget meeting tomorrow”. Make it personal if you can. Attach an electronic brochure about your business or yourself. Use this opportunity to set up the next meeting. Invite them to coffee or lunch or breakfast or just for the opportunity to drop in on them at their offices. Make sure to get it on the schedule while you are still fresh in their minds. It gets harder when too much time passes. If you know of a contact or referral for them, give it. By adopting a mentality or posture of helping them, you will reap benefits from what you sow. Plant seeds everywhere. I get call backs or referrals from people I have met that I didn’t expect to hear from again. Mark your calendar for follow up calls if appropriate. Be responsive and persistent without being a pest or overbearing. Gently touch each valuable prospect or referral source on a regular basis. A touch is a call, email, note, or shake their hand at the next event.
- Summary: There are many other people who do what you do in town. By coming across as caring, attentive, personable, helpful, funny, honest, reliable, interesting, supportive, knowledgeable, non-threatening, accessible, etc. you can differentiate yourself from all the competition. Remember that everyone is uncomfortable about approaching a stranger to talk and yet everyone wants to talk to someone at these events. What have you got to lose by just walking up to someone and introducing yourself or asking about themselves? The more you do it, the easier it gets. Isn’t that why you came in the first place?