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Don’t believe the networking myths…

When I set up my first company back in 2002, networking was THE place to go and get clients – or so everyone kept telling me. Drop into any town-centre hotel anywhere in the world at breakfast time and you’ve got a better-than-even chance of finding a group of bleary-eyed business owners balancing a plate of bacon and eggs in one hand and a glass of orange juice in the other and trying to figure out whether they should speak to someone or get their money’s worth by eating.

As the years have passed, it’s become fashionable to knock networking, however. Depending on who you listen to, networking groups are full of people who haven’t got clients. If you’ve got time to go networking, you can’t be that successful. And in any case people are only there to sell to you, not to refer.

And I’ll be honest: for the last 10 years I’ve told my clients the same thing. I’ve told them to avoid networking groups like the plague.

Which will no doubt come as a surprise to business owners here in the Greater Toronto Area, since I am becoming a reasonably regular face at networking groups around here. The truth is, I’ve become a convert. And no, no-one slipped me a Cool-Aid at a local BNI meeting.

So what changed?

I figured out what it is that makes networking work. If you’ve been avoiding networking meetings, like I did, then here are  some tips.

  1. Be very clear on why you’re there. You are there to *network*. In other words you are there to connect, not to collect business cards. I was horrified to overhear someone say “oh, I avoid small networking groups. I prefer to go to a big quarterly meet up and get a few hundred people out of the way in one go.” Marketers know (or they should!) that people don’t buy until they’ve had at least 7-22 contacts with your brand. When you go networking, you want people to buy-in to your brand, which means they need to meet you 7-22 times before they start to know, like and trust you enough to introduce you to their friends and colleagues. That means going more than once a quarter, and going to a meeting where you can actually have enough time with people to get past “hello, my name is X. Do you need new windows?”
  2. Make connections. My challenge here in the GTA has been a lack of connections. I arrived 13 months ago and spent 2014 jetting off to foreign countries to work with my global clients. So for me it was natural to approach networking as a way to meet fellow professionals. Every networking conversation I have is about finding out who the other person wants to get introduced to, even if I have no interest in their product or service myself. And I make notes on their card, so that later when I come across a potential client or JV for them I can say “you should talk to so and so…” That’s a refreshing change in networking circles, and will get you noticed.
  3. Follow up. At a typical networking meeting you won’t get much time with individuals, even if the group is small. So take that pile of business cards you collected and email or call them up. Suggest coffee, even if the chances of either of you becoming a client of the other are zero. Why? See point 2 above.
  4. This is the key point. Have a USP. Be unique. Don’t be just another accountant or lawyer or financial adviser. Don’t be another contractor or plumber. Even if you’re the only dog-walker in the room, members of your group are under no obligation to hire you or even to refer to you. You are still in competition with every other similar service-provider that they know, inside and outside the room. The single biggest factor I have found in being successful in networking is to stand out. If you have a chance to stand up and introduce yourself, open your pitch with something that creates intrigue. I spend 90% of my allocated time telling a little story that illustrates why they need me. The other 5% is to say “come and find me afterwards” and a reason to come. I’ve had people line up to meet me after the meeting.

If you enjoyed these ideas, you’ll also enjoy this fascinating blog post on how a coach used BNI to grow a seven-figure business.


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