Most people who go networking understand that it is not an environment to ‘sell, sell, sell’, but occasionally I meet people who just don’t get it. At a recent event I was talking to a couple who were not familiar with networking and so we had a great conversation about the ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’, immediately after which another attendee demonstrated so perfectly how NOT to do it that I couldn’t have arranged it better if I had tried!
Getting to know each other
The husband of this couple ran a business involved with Hedge Funds in the city and both he and his wife were really good company, with entertaining stories and a very relaxed manner that meant conversation was easy. During our chat, the husband asked me what I did and what networking was all about, so I spent a bit of time answering his questions and explaining that it was essentially ‘getting to know people’. He was intrigued as to whether I knew who in the room was worth speaking to and I said that sometimes during someone’s introduction I would think “ah, they would be good to speak to” because they could be a useful contact, a possible supplier or even a prospect. I also said that at more informal events such as the one we were attending, you simply chat with people and get to know them, the idea is not to just seek out possible ‘targets’ and start selling to them as people who did this were generally called “‘Sharks”. I explained that people with this approach rarely lasted very long as they didn’t have the patience to cultivate relationships over a year or 18 months (or longer), they simply wanted ‘quick wins’ because they wanted to sell, sell, sell!
In essence, I said that in effective networking there was no real difference to the conversation we were having right then and there. I said we may never do any business at all, but sometime in the future he might meet someone who needed a graphic designer and think “hang on, I met this guy…”, and the more times we met the more opportunities we would both get to understand each other (and each other’s businesses) so that over time we might do some business or be able to give referrals –assuming that we got to ‘know’, ‘like’ and ‘trust’ each other of course.
Watch out there’s a ‘Shark’ about!
As we stood up to go to another part of the event, a guy comes over, shoves a card into each of our hands and introduces himself to the husband. He then starts a non-stop spiel about his business: what he does, how he does it, what he offers, why he is better than his competition, etc. He barely acknowledges me or the man’s wife (clearly, he had determined that we were no use to him) so he didn’t really notice when we both decided to leave! As we walked away we looked back and could see that the poor husband was still trapped whilst being talked at by this other businessman. We chuckled to ourselves and she said to me “Well, that was what you were talking about then…”, “Yep,” I replied, “I couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of how NOT to do networking than that”. This stranger had decided that he would simply give a verbal advertisement of his business (one-way) and assumed that would be enough for us to decide that we would be happy to buy from him. Although his body language and approach demonstrated he probably wasn’t that interested in either me or the man’s wife, he had clearly identified the husband as the target.
When the exasperated husband finally caught up with us about five minutes later he just smiled and indicated that he wasn’t impressed either, and I am pretty sure all three of this guy’s business cards would have gone straight into the bin before the event was concluded. I talked to the couple a bit more, but we did not exchange business cards because I didn’t feel it was warranted. He hadn’t shown any inclination during our conversation that my services would be of use to him, and even if they were he could probably find someone nearer to central London where he lived and worked. Therefore I didn’t feel it was right to say “Would you like my card?”, especially as I didn’t feel I could reciprocate – I don’t meet many people who have the need for a Hedge Fund manager in my networking circles. Besides a networking colleague who offered a service that was useful to him had given him her card so she could always refer me if he showed some interest in the future when talking to him. Some might consider this naïve, but I felt that no matter how gently I had done it, by handing over my card after the other guy had harassed him for five minutes would have tarred me with some of the same brush.
My Networking Philosophy
I am no networking expert (for that you need to talk to Paul Green or Jacky Sherman), but for what it’s worth here is my networking philosophy based on my experience and what has been demonstrated to me over the years:
Be Honest. Don’t feel that you need to claim to be an expert in everything, no-one is. Admit the things you can’t do, don’t like, don’t understand. If you pretend to be something you are not, you will get caught out at some point, and I always warm to people more when they express their real feelings for something and admit their limitations. Demonstrate the human side of your business (i.e you) – warts and all. After all the well-worn phrase ‘People buy from people’ is no doubt true.
Be Nice. Don’t start conversations explaining why someone else, or their business is rubbish, that just makes you look embittered or threatened. If you can’t say something nice, then sometimes it is better to say nothing at all. You never know who the person you have just met knows, and attacking someone else’s business is a bad start if they are friends or confidants. It would be very easy for me to attack ‘fiverr.com’ and other budget sites for degrading the value of design, but I don’t see it that way so I just say they are fulfilling a need and their customers are not my market (and possibly never will be). If I spent the first five minutes of any introduction to a new business whining about supposed ‘competition’ such as this, no-one would learn anything useful about my business and I could come across as rather negative.
Be Patient. You can’t always judge who will become a customer, it sometimes takes months or even years before people you’ve networked with ask you for a quote. This could be for a myriad of reasons: Perhaps it takes them a while to trust people; perhaps they have a trusted supplier already; maybe they just don’t need anything you can offer yet; maybe they just don’t like you. Some may never become clients, but you don’t know who they know, so by being honest and nice you may still become trustworthy to them and they may refer you instead, which is very powerful, and just as useful.
Be consistent. I for one have a terrible memory, but most of us can’t possibly remember everyone we met nine months before especially if some of those people haven’t come back since. Regular attendance will allow people to remember who you are, what you do and what your business is. And this has to come first before they can ‘like’ or ‘trust’ you.
Educate, don’t berate. Demonstrate your experience and expertise, by imparting your knowledge without obligation or expectation of something in return. Don’t try to raise yourself above your competition by bad-mouthing them, simply show what you can do irrespective of what other companies do. And don’t ram your services down someone’s throat the instant you meet them, let them get to know you and let them ask questions and learn about your business over time.
Reciprocate. Learn about their business, who they are, what they like (and dislike). As you get to know them you may get to ‘like’ and ‘trust’ them, so if you do make sure you help them by referring them. You don’t need to refer everyone you meet, because you need to make sure that they are worth doing business with, otherwise your referral reflects badly on you. But if you can demonstrate that you are part of a community and you understand other businesses to the extent you can explain what they do and refer them, that has a positive effect on the person you are talking to as it proves you are not just there to ‘sell, sell, sell’ like the rather misguided gentleman in the story I related above…
I hope that in your networking adventures you meet more people who are nice and honest, and fewer ‘Sharks’ who are just there to tell and sell!