What is it that scares the bee-jeebies out of most of us about networking? Call it what you want - glad-handing, meeting and greeting, smiling and dialing, business development, relationship building - it's all about meeting people with some intent to persuade them to discuss new work with you. It's certainly easier with folks you already know, but how in the world do you speak to total strangers and convince them of the merits of you, your practice and your talent? I'm not going to tell you as they do in public speaking 101 to imagine your audience in their underwear, but I am going to give you some tips and training to make the first time (or 100th time) just a little easier to break that ice and make your point.
"Go often, listen, ask meaningful questions that engage your prospects and one of the most valuable pieces of advice - follow up."
If you are a newbie to the networking world, here are two hints and one tip:
- Do not arrive unprepared, or as they say "preparation prevents poor performance". Know the audience and carefully select 10 people - 5 you know well, and 5 you don't know at all but who you would like to know. Call the folks you know to see if they know any of the other 5 and ask if they will provide a casual introduction. Research something about each of the 5 "target candidates" such as others you might know in their firm, what projects they are currently working on, recent news, recent hires - all great ice breakers.
- It's going to happen, as soon as there is a lull in your questions. The target candidates will ask, "So what do you do?" This isn't the time to drag a 50 page brochure out of your pocket or to ask for his signature on a contract. It's a conversation. Have your short form answer ready. Rehearse it ahead of time. Do not let the first time you say it be in front of a real client prospect. As smooth and as naturally as you can, say "I'm an ______ and my firm recently completed _______, you may be familiar with it." (You selected a particular project to tell this client about because you know he does that type work and he is very likely to have heard of a competitor's project.)
TIP: Ask the target candidate how their project (the one you researched) is coming along and what have they found has been the biggest challenge on the project. Again, we don't learn by talking, we learn by listening.
If you are a more seasoned professional but have not logged time in the networking arena, here are a few more advanced ideas:
- While following the newbie hints above is a great idea, a more seasoned professional might consider having some focused tri-fold pocket folders in your jacket pocket that deal with two or three specialty areas of your firm and be prepared to offer to new contacts in lieu of a business card exchange. Since the handout is pocket-sized, the prospects can also transfer to their inside pocket and not feel like they have to hold it or set it down. This is a tool used by many firms attending seminars or conventions and can be an effective tool to illustrate expertise without becoming too burdensome for the recipients. Simple and effective.
- If your target candidate seems genuinely interested, ask about continuing the conversation at their office or invite them to your office or to lunch. Many clients enjoy learning new approaches to their project type so be prepared with a white paper for knowledge sharing like, "Top 10 elements that can make Healthcare more Patient Friendly", or "Five Amenities that accelerate learning in K-6th grade children." and hand it out when you meet. Don't forget to bring one of your senior staff along to meet the prospect.
As a professional who was always responsible for keeping my firm(s) alive with a steady flow of projects, I had to master the art of meeting people and making a good impression at a young age. The best thing about networking is that it gets easier with experience. Go often, listen, ask meaningful questions that engage your prospects and one of the most valuable pieces of advice - follow up. Build a series of personal letter / email follow-ups to speed the process, but personalize before sending. Every follow-up should have a call to action for a next meeting, lunch or even a site visit. Sound like a skill you could develop? I'm sure it is and I can help with this and dozens of other ideas if you are interested.
William M. Burwell is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture in sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff. Bill retired in 2014 and began Burwell Consulting providing Business Development and Marketing Guidance and to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years. Bill writes articles sharing his experience in keystone practice areas: Entrepreneurship, Business Development and Marketing. He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com .