Selling Professional Services
The REAL Secrets of Networking
There’s lots of great training available about the skills of networking.
Crafting a compelling “elevator pitch”, learning how to break in to groups, hold conversations, ask for referrals.
All good stuff. But in a way, all very tactical. Personally I’ve found there are much more powerful principles that make a huge difference to your success at winning clients. Principles that most networkers tend to ignore.
Get these principles right and even if you’re a networking newbie you’ll do well. Get them wrong and no amount of skill will save you.
Principle #1: Networking is not about events
Chamber of commerce events, BNI, professional association events: all have their place. And no denying that some people get good leads and business from them.
But ask yourself this question: where have your best referral clients come from?
For me, my best recent referrals have come from ex-collegues, an ex-client, a contact who I know at an association, and a couple of regular subscribers/readers.
I bet your referrals have come from similar sources.
And if that’s the case, it means that your most important networking isn’t at events; it’s the networking you do with your ex-colleagues, your ex-clients and other well-connected contacts you have.
In fact, you shouldn’t think of networking in terms of events. You should think of networking as something you do all the time with all your best contacts and whenever you meet new people.
Key Action: think about how you can improve the way you network with your contact base outside of formal events. And remember to treat any interactions you have with new people as networking.
Principle #2: Networking is not about meeting “like minded people”
About half the invitations to networking events I get seem to focus on how it’ll be a great opportunity to meet “like minded people”.
Similarly, many people advise only connecting on Linkedin with people they already know
But my instincts are to meet people who are different to me, not the same. I want to connect online with interesting new people I couldn’t meet face to face, not just the same ones I’ve already met.
And it turns out my instincts are good: the best networks are diverse ones.
When Mark Granovetter studied people who were seeking new jobs through their network, he found that the most and best new opportunities came not from the people they knew well, but the people they had “weak ties” with. People they knew, but met only infrequently; people on the outer edges of their network.
It makes sense when you think about it. People you know very well who are just like you, hang around in the same circles, read the same newspapers; they have access to the same information you do. So they’re unlikely to be able to bring you many new opportunities that you couldn’t have found yourself.
But people on the outer edges of your network who move in different circles and know different people to you get access to information and opportunities you don’t have access to. So they’re much more likely to bring new things to you.
Similarly, Ron Burt showed that by far the most significant predictor of career success is the diversity of your network and your ability to broker between different network “clusters” within that diverse network.
Our natural tendency, of course, is to gravitate towards others who are similar to us. People who share our outlook and beliefs and who we find easy to get along with rather than challenging.
This is especially true online where we suffer from what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble effect“. Online it’s so easy to avoid or filter out people we find challenging that we end up interacting mainly with people very similar to ourselves and rarely hear any new or dissenting opinions.
Ask yourself this question: if you’re a white, middle class, middle aged man (or a young black university educated woman or whatever); are the vast majority of your contacts white, middle class, middle aged men too?
If so, you’ve got a problem. You won’t be getting access to enough new information, ideas and opportunities through your network.
Key Action: get more diversity into your network. Actively join groups offline and online where there are very different people to yourself. If you’re a management consultant, make sure the next networking event you go to is for online startups or green businesses.
You might feel uncomfortable. You might be challenged by some of the people there and disagree with their viewpoints. But you’ll also form valuable relationships that will make your network much more powerful.
Principle #3: Networking isn’t about how you ‘network’ – it’s about how you follow-up
Almost all the training on networking focuses on what you do when you first meet people.
How you introduce yourself. What your business card should look like. How to hold a conversation. How to end a conversation and move on to other people. How to spot who would be interested in meeting you. How to describe what you do to get people interested. Even how to shake hands properly.
None of it, in my opinion, is that important.
I’ve met consultants who’ve made the apparently cardinal sin of introducing themselves by saying “I’m a consultant” rather than tell me who they work with and the benefits they bring to them or using some snappy and memorable catchphrase.
I’ve met people who struggled to hold a decent conversation for 2 minutes, others who dressed like they’d got up in the dark, others whose business card looked like it was hand-scrawled.
And I ended up doing business with all of them.
Because they followed up.
They kept in touch. They introduced me to people. They sent me stuff they thought I might be interested in on email.
Meanwhile, most of the folks who’d perfected their elevator pitches and questioning technique and all the clever things you learn on the training courses made a great first impression. But they never got past that because they never followed up.
We rarely do business with people when we first meet them. All the “making a great first impression” in the world doesn’t help if you don’t keep in touch with people and nurture your relationship with them.
Key Action: make your follow up systematic. Write down how you’re going to follow up with new contacts you make and follow that process every time. Store people’s details away while you can remember them and regularly review them to drive your follow up process.
I hope so. This is the sort of stuff that seems obvious with hindsight, but that we rarely do.
Instead we restrict our networking to official events and switch off anywhere else. We hang around with people who are far too similar to ourselves and we rarely follow up consistently with the new people we meet.
But if you can follow the three simple principles I’ve shared you’ll be way ahead of the game and get huge amounts more value from your networking than even the most skilled networked who doesn’t follow them.
Happy networking :)