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HOW TO NETWORK

Does the thought of attending a networking function sound about as inviting as a trip to the dentist for root canal?

Do you turn up to a networking function and head straight for the people you know and stay firmly next to them for the entire event? Or do you stand in a corner stuffing yourself with food because you feel to intimidated to introduce yourself to a perfect stranger?

Or maybe you are the one who apologises about their shabby business cards because you just didn't get prepared in time.

Whoever you are, networking just shouldn’t be that miserable. In fact networking groups and events are one of the simplest and most beneficial things you could do for your business. After all, no-one is as great a sales representative, walking advertisement and industry expert than yourself!

I have a client who happily admits that over 80% of his business comes from a weekly networking breakfast group and the referrals they put his way. The added benefit is that not only does his networking group provide him with business leads, they are also like minded people that bounce ideas off one another and continually inspire him to venture into new business developments he never would have conceived on his own.

The best thing however for my colleague is that he has never had to spend a cent on advertising. He understands that one of his great strengths is selling his own business and therefore the greatest advertisement for his business is himself!

So below are a few suggestions which may make your next networking function a greater success, and maybe even an enjoyable one!

1. Arrive on time. You may as well capitalise on the time you have and it is much better to enter a room that is a quarter full and strike up a conversation, than to enter a full room already buzzing! The latter can be a lot more daunting because breaking into conversations already underway is intimidating for anyone.

2. Look the part. Wear your name badge or your business card on your shirt, it’s a great lead in for someone else to greet you by name and have some idea already about what you do when you meet. Also, make the effort to look sharp. If it’s after work, attempt to freshen up before you arrive. Wear your nicest suit, and another great tip is to wear something really memorable and bright. That way you really stand out and people have a better chance of remembering you when you follow up. After all, when you’re meeting numerous conservative business people all in black and navy suits, they really do start to look the same!

A networking professional who attends many of these functions always wears bright pink to an event, and mix that with her dynamic personality you can see and hear her from across the room of black and grey suits! Her presence is memorable, and you could guarantee that when she follows up on business leads the next day she is instantly remembered.

3. Look approachable. Look up, not at your shoes, make eye contact and then smile! Nervous is okay, you’re only human after all, but why would anyone approach you if you’re standing moodily in the corner, arms crossed in front and scowling! Body language is everything at these gatherings.

4. Listen when people speak to you. A pet hate of mine is how quickly you can be dismissed by someone when they assume that you will never be a business prospect for them. Only the rudest individual will dump you mid sentence and move on to their next prey, breaking all rules of networking etiquette in the process!

This is not what network functions are about. It is about meeting like minded business people who you can develop relationships with each other on many levels, and help each other with alliances in all forms of business. Never underestimate where one contact may lead to. Some business people can be very understated when you first meet them and won’t initially reveal their business potential until they are comfortable with you.

5. Be the master of small talk. If you find striking up small talk very difficult, asking a relaxed question about the function itself is an easy icebreaker. “What do you think about the venue?” or “How did you hear about this event?” are good questions because they can’t be answered with yes or no answers.

6. Give out business cards. And don’t forget to collect them too! Try to remember as much as you can about every contact and then as soon as you leave the event write on the back of the card any relevant information that may be useful when you speak next.

7. Ask permission at the event to call the following day if it appears who you have met could be a good business lead. Never discuss finer business details or money at the event. That too is considered to be poor networking etiquette!

8. Follow up. If you said you were going to call the next day, make sure you do. Clearly state who you are and that you had met them previously at the networking function. Don’t assume they will remember promptly if you just give them a first name and then pause!

9. Connect with the person of interest on the appropriate social media site. Most likely that will be through their professional Facebook profile, and LInkedIn. Stay in touch this way if it's not obvious immediately to that person tha you should be doing business. Stay in front of them in a friendly manner and build the relationship in this fashion. Share appropriate articles or information with them online, invite them to your blog or enewsletter. Give, give, give. Relationships take time, do not rush it.

10. Know what you want to say. Do not take up too much of their time when you do call, be brief, to the point and always ask if they are able to speak at that time. Make your intentions very clear. If you would like to meet at a later date to discuss business opportunities or to demonstrate a product or service, ask them. Suggest a time that is appropriate for you and then see when they are available.

Some people follow up with emails which isn’t as intimidating as a phone call, but they also are not very personal. It’s always easy to dismiss an email. When trying to make an appointment, a phone call is always best.

11. Promotional material. Make the most of whatever free exposure you are allowed. If the event has “show bags”, make sure you insert an attractive flyer, product sample, newsletter, brochure, or even just a business card into them. A networking event I attend encourage “expo” tables where members can showcase their products or services for absolutely nothing! The sky is the limit and you never know who you are going to meet, so never let an opportunity for free publicity elude you.

12. Expectations. It is reasonable to think that if you speak with 10-15 people at a networking function that that is pretty good. In a room full of people you could only expect that a handful of people are in a position to do business with you in the near future, and the chances of meeting every single one of them is not likely. If you are able to personally meet one or two prospective clients at each event, and regularly attend networking functions at least once a month, then you will surely reap the benefits of the new alliances you have made.

13. Strategic Alliance. This is when you may meet a person who may not become a client of yours, but you may develop a professional relationship with where you "swap" your business contacts and "piggy back" off each other's client base. It is a great way to expand your new business leads quickly, and form a small community of complementary services, each looking out for the other.

If you are interested in finding out more about networking associations in your area, the internet, the local newspaper and community groups are the best place to start. Here is a link to some of the networking groups that I have had great success with:

BNI Australia
She Business
Business Enterprise Centre - St George and Sutherland Shire
Success Womens Network
Womens Network Australia
Business Chicks


Melissa Robson
Director, Divine Creative Design


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