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.
A topic I've blogged about frequently is the importance of good follow-up and of nurturing relationships over time.
In The Importance of Good Follow-Up I highlighted the futility of the “Nice to meet you, if you ever need our services…” email follow-up to networking meetings and suggested a number of value-adding alternatives.
One trend I've noticed recently is the increasing use of email newsletters as a follow-up mechanism. It's a trend I whole heartedly applaud – my business is driven by email marketing. But only when you do it right.
And signing people up for your email newsletter without their permission is absolutely the wrong way to do it.
On at least half a dozen occasions recently I've found myself subscribed to email newsletters from people and companies who I've met briefly at networking meetings. I've given them my business card and they've plugged it straight into their email distribution list.
This is a follow-up mechanism that has the potential to add value if the newsletter is of high quality and relevant to me. But how does it make me feel to have my details “harvested” in this way?
To be honest, not great.
It feels impersonal. I've not had an email or call from them. Nothing mentioning any connection we made at the event and no thought from them on tailoring the message to my specific needs. I've just been fed into their email marketing machine.
I wondered whether I was the only one who felt this way, so I posed the question on Twitter to see how others felt:
As you can see from this sample of responses, people's feelings are almost universally negative. They range from “I want to *smack* them!” and “it sucks!” to at best, “my junk filtering can soon take care of them if they fail to send me anything interesting or useful”. And remember, these negative responses are to something as seemingly innocent as adding someone's name to an email distribution list after meeting them. For me, Kneale Mann summed up the sentiment best best when he replied: “A handshake does not make you a customer”.
Obviously, Twitter followers are not a sample that's representative of the public at large. But I do believe they represent an important and growing sensitivity to the appropriate use of information.
So what's the alternative?
Well, since you are interacting face to face with them, there should be ample opportunity to offer to send the newsletter and get their permission.
If the time isn't right when you meet them, then send them an email afterwards with a sample copy of the newsletter suggesting it might be of interest and giving a link to sign-up if they are. Personalise the emails – recalling topics you discussed or better still – add value by suggesting ideas for questions they posed or challenges they highlighted when you were talkign with them.
Now don't get me wrong, this is my opinion as to what you should do rather than something that is proven to have better results. I haven't done any testing to see what results in better long-term subscriptions, click throughs on the newsletter or eventually sales.
But for me that doesn't matter. If you want to establish a reputation as someone who can be trusted then you mustn't do anything early on in the relationship to suggest an abuse of trust. Auto-subscribing people to your newsletter without asking is hardly the crime of the century – but to many people it suggests that you will not treat them as individuals with their best interests at heart.
Personally, I'd rather lose potential newsletter subscribers than lose that reputation of trust.
PS Many thanks to all the Twitter users who replied to my poll on this topic – your answers were most helpful.
One of the most common pieces of “wisdom” we're repeatedly told in marketing and sales is that since our clients are tuned in to WII FM – What's In it For Me we need to adjust our messages and our interactions with them accordingly. In other words everything we say about ourselves must be geared to how they can benefit by working with us.
And to a large degree this is true. Our “elevator speech” or “audio logo” must be set in client focused terms to create empathy and interest – or they will simply switch off. However, it's not the full story.
Our clients and prospects are not completely self-centred creatures. They are normal human beings. As the old saying goes: people buy from people – and we are all inherently interested in other people's stories. It helps to humanise and cement relationships. Think of the strongest relationships you have with your best clients: are they purely business oriented? Or, in fact, haven't they transcended the “what's in it for me” and moved to a level where you are genuinely interested in, and care about the interests of the other party?
So in addition to the business-focused elements of your elevator speech and the initial discussions you have with people at networking events – you must be able to move on and open up about yourself in an interesting way which lays the foundation for a deeper human relationship with your prospective client.
One of the best ways to do this is with a compelling backstory. In fact a frequent follow-up question in initial meetings is “so how did you get here?” or “what's your story”.
In the world of literature, TV and the movies, the backstory is the history of the characters. How they got to where they are today. It gives logic and legitimacy to their thinking and their actions. Helen is bristly and reluctant to form close relationships because of a painful divorce she went through. John is lacking in self-confidence because he was always told he was no good as a child.
In similar manner, a well-constructed and engagingly told backstory can really help further your relationships on both a business and personal front:
Your personal backstory humanises you – it helps people see inside to what motivates you and why you do the things you do and why you are the way you are.
It provides mental hooks for people to remember you by. “You're the guy who gave up the big corporate job to focus on helping local businesses”, “Ah yes, you're the lady who was thrown in at the deep end and learnt her selling skills the hard way.”
Most importantly, it provides evidence and credibility to back up the claims you make about your business. Did you spend 5 years in Japan learning their quality methods? Perhaps you witnessed the pain of your parents' messy divorce and were motivated to become a divorce lawyer who did things a better way.
Used in this latter way, your backstory can stand alongside testimonials and qualifications to “prove” you are highly competent at what you do. And it feels so much less “salesy” and more natural than trotting out customer quotes or a string of letters.
Of course, it goes without saying that your backstory must be true. But unless you think about it and prepare it carefully you won't be able to articulate it well and link it to the key selling messages you are trying to get across. You need to look at your value proposition or USP and think through: what is it I have done that makes me uniquely qualified to do this? Then find a way of articulating this in your backstory.
My own personal backstory focuses on how I have both consulted for 15 years in strategy, sales and marketing to some of the worlds leading firms – and have been in the trenches myself selling professional services (in my case consulting projects). It tells of how I learnt the hard way through mistakes – so it's a relatively self-deprecating backstory and doesn't sound like I'm showing off. The key is that it tells potential clients in a subtle and understated way that not only have I expertise from consulting, but I have been in their position and “walked the talk” and sold professional services successfully myself.
One of the best backstories I've heard is from a local accountant (Jesse Oldfield of Lymm) who, before returning to accounting, ran a number of small businesses as MD himself. Without shouting it out loud, this tells prospective clients that he really knows what they're going through running their own business. Any accountant can claim to be able to give solid business advice to their clients – but Jesse can do so with real credibility because of his backstory.
You won't use your backstory every time you meet someone. But you will be asked about your history or “how you got here” surprisingly frequently. And if you've prepared an interesting backstory, you will be able to cement their perception of your credbility – while enhancing your personal human relationship with them.
Business Networking is a vital sales tool for professionals and salespeople alike – yet it's one that many people struggle with.
I‘ve seen a lot of great advice given over the years – but very few people touch on what I have found to be the most important skill of all.
Most networking advice focuses on what to say – how to position yourself, how to answer the “what do you do?” question, how to get people interested in what you have to offer.
This is all important stuff – but there's something that can have a much bigger impact on your networking success than how you describe what you do.
It's the simple technique of asking them what they do first.
Most networkers rush far too quickly into talking about themselves. They're so passionate about what they do and what they have to offer – and so desperate for the other person to understand this – that their discussion becomes more of a monologue.
The reality is that networking is a long term game – and the initial meeting is the very first innings of that game. No one is going to start buying from you or referring business to you after a 5 minute chat. So there's no rush to blurt out all the details of what you do. What is vital is for you to make a good impression – to be seen as someone worthy of continuing a discussion with and finding out more about. And what sort of people do we like talking to? People who are genuinely interested in us and let us talk about ourselves. Not people who dominate the conversation and talk about themselves all the time.
But even more importantly than this, being the first to ask “what do you do?” and to focus on the other person gives you 6 major advantages:
You can figure out whether the other person is a potential customer or a potential referrer for you – and adjust your “elevator speech” accordingly.
By learning about what the other person does and what they're interested in, you can see how to best pitch your services to hit the right “hot buttons” for them.
If you have multiple services to offer you can identify which is the most appropriate for them and focus on a powerful specific message for that – rather than using a generic “catch all”.
By listening to the way they communicate and the language they use you can identify the best way to communicate with them in a compelling manner.
You may be able to pick up specific areas where you can help them straight away – people to connect them too or resources to point them at. By adding value for them before you've even talked about yourself you'll make a tremendous impression.
And, of course, by listening first you'll be seen as empathetic and understanding – just the sort of positioning you want as a trusted advisor.
And one more subtle bonus – by focusing on being the first to ask “what do you do?” and then on listening, you're really taking the pressure off yourself. No need to worry about have a word-perfect pitch – even the clumsiest amongst us can ask a simple question and then listen. So by the time you get asked the return question (and if you've listened well – you will get asked), you've already built up a good rapport with your conversation partner – and your side will be listened to more attentively and more sympathetically.
PS – for more resources on effective business networking hop on over to the site of the UK's leading networking guru and all-round nice-guy Will Kintish.