The scepticism surrounding networking which frequently surfaces makes me smile. We hold a relaxed business get together once a month for local people on Twitter who want to meet up face to face and we call it ‘Cruddle’. It’s held in a quaint country pub where the regulars are understandably protective of their territory and wary of outsiders. A conversation overheard at a recent meeting went something like this; “Who are that lot over there?”. The whispered response, “N.e.t.w.o.r.k.e.r.s”, resulted in a knowing look, a nodding of the head and an equally low-toned reply of “Ah! Networkers!”, firmly setting us aside as something more than a little ‘strange’.
Now I have to confess I’m a networking devotee. As someone who dreaded cold calling, it has aided my escape from being confronted by a Rottweiler or similar deterrent guarding the door to the decision maker preventing any likelihood of making contact. Networking events are (usually) Rottweiler-free and even if your ideal client doesn’t attend the same meeting as you, there’s a fair chance that someone in your group is able to give you an introduction and referral. It’s not always about the business done and dusted on the day, but more about the potential of being put in touch with the right people at the right time. Generally speaking fellow networkers don’t bite.
However, if you want to get the most out of networking, you need to be generous. That doesn’t mean offering the people sitting at your table a share of your breakfast, or buying a round of drinks at the bar. It’s about being on receive and not only using the transmit button when you’re engaging in conversation. There’s nothing more irritating when you’re given a designated 10 minute slot to chat with someone, only to find they use the entire time to sell you a service or product without asking a single question about your business. Admittedly it takes conscious effort to develop good listening skills in the same way in which there’s an art to being a good speaker. I love the William Jennings Bryant quotation; ‘Two people in a conversation amount to four people talking. The four are what one person says, what he really wanted to say, what his listener heard, and what he thought he heard.’ Although establishing business relationships within a group takes time to build an element of trust, this inevitably results in a network of ambassadors who will essentially help you to expand your business contacts, while you in turn help them to expand theirs.
These observations should in no way be perceived as discrimination against Rottweilers, some of whom I’m sure are the gentlest of dogs. It should also be noted that although networkers may not bite, even friendly ‘puppy dogs’ are known to bark aggressively if you’ve caught them on a particularly stressful day. In this case, it may actually be wise to share your breakfast or offer them a drink. Give and take. That’s what good networking’s about isn’t it?
When you’re sitting down ready to plan your Pick and Mix of the year’s marketing strategy, do you see a clear scheme ahead or do you feel lost and confused? E-Shots and DM’s, cold calls or a constant round of networking?
Isn’t the simplest solution to put ourselves in the recipient’s shoes? How many of us are convinced that firing out multiple emails indiscriminately will achieve a high percentage of success? I find that I’m becoming increasingly wary of opening a message in my Inbox with the concern that if I don’t recognise and trust the sender, I may well risk downloading a virus or malicious software. With the current deluge of spam from legitimate businesses and constant bombardment of unsolicited sales messages and special offers, overkill on the sending of E-Shots can actually damage a brand. Spam Ratings who monitor this, estimate that 75 per cent of emails received in the UK can be classified as unwanted or nuisance emails.
So what are the better alternatives? A recent survey by Which magazine reported that the majority would like to see cold calling banned, especially the ‘silent’ timed out calls often made from overseas centres. By the way, in the last 30 minutes I’ve taken 4 unsolicited sales calls from suppliers bearing no relationship whatsoever to our Company profile. In any event, most cold callers fail to get past the ‘gatekeeper’ to reach the decision maker. Twitter, the social networking, microblogging site probably combines the equivalent of e-shots and cold calling in an effective way. Messages posted in 140 characters or less will be easily read by your followers when it’s convenient for them to do so, with the content reaching a wide Twitter business network. The only outgoing from the marketing budget is your time.
Networking plays an important role in fusion marketing. Meeting face-to-face with the business community gives the opportunity to build connections in a relaxed environment. It requires some research to figure out which groups are going to be most rewarding in the long term and what style of networking you feel comfortable with. Selection on the basis of how big the sausage is on your plate at a breakfast event isn’t likely to equate to the size of business it brings in if your fellow networkers aren’t the right contacts.
Notably, the more traditional postcard is back in fashion. Custom designed, with a powerful message, an eye-catching and memorable image this has the potential to sit on the recipient’s desk for future reference, unlike an easily deleted or forgotten email message. I quite often rummage through my desk drawer to respond to a piece of direct mail I’ve been saving for when the time was right to use the product or service. I very rarely throw anything away. Royal Mail says that 80% of Direct Mail is opened by the over 65 age-group. Perhaps I’m ahead of my time, or maybe I believe the more mature know that sometimes traditional methods can be trusted not to let you down.
What’s going into your marketing Pick and Mix for 2011?
Ever wondered what the connection is between networking and a marrow? Harvesting. Still confused? Meandering around my vegetable patch at the weekend looking at an impressive crop of weeds but a distinct lack of produce, it ignited the realisation that business networking doesn’t pay any dividends if you don’t put any effort into sowing the right seeds and cultivating relationships.
We have a multitude of options open to us on the networking front, with invitations to network over breakfast, morning coffee, lunch and at pre-dinner events. We may be tempted to rush around blindly attending everything we can fit into our working schedule without giving our best attention to any in particular, bearing a comparison to tossing seeds over the soil without first reading the packet with no idea what we expect to harvest in the future. If we don’t research the type of group we’re joining, we can’t complain when we’re disappointed with the format. Too structured or the opposite, too informal, too big and you feel lost in the crowd, or the attendance is so poor you wonder if you’ve gate crashed a private after-work drinks party (or wish you had).
So once we’ve found a group that suits our style, how do we cultivate our contacts and increase business growth? Seeding the group with business cards won’t produce a heavy crop of contracts or orders unless you follow up with some TLC and stay in touch. It takes time to grow relationships and valuable professional connections are established over time. Feed your fellow networkers with something that may also profit them. You will only benefit by putting into a network as much as you hope to get out. Show that you’re interested in the other members in your group and find out what they need instead of focusing on what you can give them. As most referrals have been shown to come from second and third level contacts, don’t dismiss that apparently unimpressive attendee as unproductive. Not everything in the business allotment is always as it seems.
Someone told me recently that they had no need to network as new clients ‘found them’ when they wanted their services. As if by magic it seems. You may be as lucky and have customers arriving off the shelf by home delivery, but wouldn’t you prefer to get out there networking and grow your own? Quality assured, just like my marrow.
When you step through the door at your next networking event, take a moment to pause for thought. Are you going to approach your fellow networkers as a Hunter or a Farmer? Do you go into the room armed with business cards and search for the best prospects, with the intention of bagging big corporate game? If you feel you’ve misjudged the mark, do you then move on for better spoils, hoping to sell, sell, sell? If this is your operating method (modus operandi sounds better), then it appears you should put your hands up to being a Hunter. However, networking may not be your best hunting ground as prospects will feel under threat from an aggressive sales pitch and make a quick escape. As tempting as it may be, avoid using your elevator pitch as an introduction. Put yourself in your prospect’s place. How do you feel when someone appears to be measuring you up just to sell to you and then insists on tracking you around the room waiting to pounce again? Hunted and trapped?
Networking is ideally suited to the Farmers amongst us. Farmers understand the necessity to cultivate and nurture a long-term business association. They are patient relationship builders and repairers with a natural empathy for customer service. They see the value of collaboration and referrals, understanding that fellow networkers can become future ambassadors. A Farmer will approach everyone without pre-judging or dismissing them. Hunters are impatient for results but have to understand that it’s rare for a potential business contact to tell you they need your product or service during your first meeting at a networking event. They’ll want to find out more about you and your company first. A Farmer will sow seeds of trust for long term growth of a business relationship.
If we’re observant, I reckon we can easily spot the Hunters and Farmers in the group. The next time your conversation is interrupted by someone over-eager to get their sales pitch over, you’ll know that the Hunter has struck. When you meet a networker who listens attentively and shows an interest in what you have to say, then you’re engaging with a Farmer with whom you may well harvest mutually beneficial business in the future.
The Hunter may find it difficult to adapt the Farmer approach in a group situation, in the same way that the patient Farmer would feel uncomfortable going for the heavily pressured hard sell which the Hunter excels and thrives on. Networking however, shouldn’t be about hit and run and moving on to the next sales conquest. Relationships can be built and maintained, forming long-term links. In the main people are more interested in the experience they have with others during networking, not in buying into a product or a service on the day.
It’s about selling the sizzle, not the sausage.