When it comes to networking successfully, you'll find you have much better results if you focus on making connections over making sales.
A week ago, I spent the day at a large amusement park with my oldest daughter. It was a wonderful day and there weren't very many lines for the rides. We were able to go on many rides in a short period of time. So much so, that I needed a break.
Fortunately, this amusement park also puts on shows, so we decided to take our break while watching this musical presentation. As we were waiting for the show to begin a man sat down in our row who I recognized. He is someone I used to go to Scouts and church with when we were both 12 & 13 years old....25 years ago.
I haven't seen him in a quarter of a century when we were both much younger, but I knew it was him. We weren't the best of friends, but we were friends nonetheless. What should I do? What would you do?
I figure I have a couple of options:
1) Do nothing
2) Wave and see if he remembers me
3) Walk over and offer my hand, hope that I am not mistaken, and that he remembers me too
I decide that I will introduce myself to him after the show, since it is about to begin anyway. I try to enjoy the show, but the worries of "what if I am wrong"..."what if I'm not wrong and he doesn't remember me" fill my head.
The show ends, and with some encouragement from my daughter, I walk over to him and say "Aren't you so-and-so from Brampton?" he looks at me pauses and I introduce myself. It takes a few seconds (which feels like forever) but then he has a slight recall and we shake hands and take a few minutes to catch up and find out what each other has been doing.
I find out that he is now a teacher and has a few children. We even have daughters with the same names. And then we went our separate ways. That was it..no big deal. Except that for me, it was a big deal.
A year ago, I probably would have chosen option 1 and said to myself "Well, if he recognized me, he would have walked over to me." I don't like to say that I am naturally shy, because when I was younger I was very outgoing, but over the last few years as I have "grown up" I have become much more reserved and calculating in my social interactions. I have settled into a comfort zone and was never forced to move outside of it. Social media and email has made it much easier for me to socialize without being social.
Building Relationships Takes Work
But I am working on changing. As a business owner I am learning to force myself out of my comfort zone and actually speak face to face with people. I am learning the value of true networking.
We all know those people who introduce themselves or "network" with you just to see what they can get out of you. What can they sell you? What do you have to offer them in terms of leads? We feel their insincerity almost immediately and it is confirmed when they walk on to the next person when we have nothing to offer them.
I have always steered clear of networking events because of those people. I didn't want to become one of them.
I attended an employment seminar in the time between leaving my job and starting my business where I was taught a key principle in networking. The key is building relationships. Really listening to the person you are speaking with. If there is a lead for work, great, if not, also great. Within a true network, there are multiple connections and perhaps the person you are seeing face to face is not the connection you need, but they may be connected to someone you need to meet.
In other words, we were to ask "Who do you know that I need to know?" As I have started to build my network, I have taken the approach: 'Who do I know that you need to know?" instead. Sure I still need clients, and am looking to build my own business, but I find that I listen better when I am trying to play match maker between people.
As I listen to people to find out what their needs are, if I don't provide that service, I am always happy to encourage them to speak with someone who might be able to help them instead. In order to be effective at providing referrals, I also have to really listen to what it is that people do and what services are available in the community. If I am able to provide an effective recommendation and assist in solving their problem everyone wins.
I really enjoy speaking with students or individuals who are looking for work as I can try and direct them to companies or organizations that can help them. I recently spoke with a young man who will be starting school at Niagara College in the fall. I was so excited for him and told him about all the great things that are happening there through Niagara Research and how they work so hard with their students to get real-life work experience through their co-op programs that he couldn't help but be more excited about attending there.
It was especially gratifying because he had just been told that his chosen field of study had a very competitive market. He now felt confident that he was making the right choice and knew that he had some "insider information" that most first year students might not have.
I have found that true networking has been instrumental in building my business. I have not closed any deals at a networking event, however, all but one of my clients has come through networking or referrals. If I were to rely solely on cold-calling, traditional advertising or even social media for the success of my business (although each play an important role) I would be in dire straits right now.
So where do you start?
Get out of your office or house and find a place to meet people that makes sense for you.
If you are looking to make business connections, find your local chamber of commerce. Find associations in your business / industry sector where you can meet with like minded individuals or business owners. They usually have regular networking events and the first few meetings should be free to attend.
Don't worry about making sales.
Not everyone is looking for what you are selling and if you are a little nervous (like me) in these situations, there's no pressure if you are not trying to sell anything. If your goal is to make sales and you don't succeed, the event is a failure.
Almost everyone there is looking to make connections. If your goal is to make connections, you will succeed every time as long as you reach out to make those connections. Running into an old acquaintance could have been awkward if he didn't remember me. It would have been much more awkward if I was trying to sell him on my business or looking for leads. Instead, it was a pleasant exchange between two former associates who had built a relationship 25 years ago.