Kelly here! In the last couple of years, I've taken on the role of "sales team" for Filament, and I've found that networking is my #1 referral source month after month. Interestingly, everyone that I talk to shares their distaste for having to go out and hit the networking circuit; I agree that it's not my favorite part of running a business, but I have learned how to leverage my time to gain introductions and referrals year-round.
When I was starting my business, someone told me that the key to successful networking was to give a group long enough to get to know and trust you. My current rule of thumb is one year. Whether it's monthly happy hours, bi-weekly breakfasts, or weekly lunches, if I commit to a networking group, I make a point to attend their scheduled events consistently. The idea is to give other members time to retain what you do, get more comfortable with your personality, and build trust. (And if I can't make it, I try to send someone else on my team to represent us!)
Networking 1 on 1's
One block on my weekly calendar is set aside for a 1 on 1 meeting with someone I meet at a networking event. Not only is it easier for me to connect with someone in a more intimate setting than in a crowded, sales-pitch filled environment, it gives me a chance to either introduce that person to Filament and our team, or get a better idea of where they work and what their environment is. When I stopped looking at 1 on 1's as a sales meeting, and started looking at them as an opportunity to prepare someone to give me a referral, I became a much more successful networker.
Listen More Than You Talk
I've found that one of the best ways to build trust with people I network with is to help them solve a problem, or send them a referral. The only way I can do that is if I understand their business, their goals, and ask questions. When I listen well, I can usually offer something of value in return (a personal introduction, a book or podcast recommendation, or another networking group that they might like) which brings me to the top of their list of resources for the future.
Show Your Professional Side
This is my soapbox for the day. When you're in a room with 10, 20, or even 50 other professionals for a networking event, don't pander to the lowest common denominator. Especially in larger, more formal environments, keep it professional. I've been in countless situations where one person will make an offensive joke or statement, and suddenly another handful of people feel empowered to follow suit, while the rest of the group shifts in their seats uncomfortably. If you love raunchy comedy, or have strong political beliefs, that's great - but I beg you to save the comments for your close circle of friends. In my opinion, there's no better way to loose a prospect or referral source before you've even met them, than to offend them with a statement better left unsaid.
What good are all of those business cards you collect if you don't make an effort to connect in a more meaningful way after a networking event? My practice is to send a quick email after I meet someone letting them know that it was a pleasure (and inserting my contact info. into their inbox). I've also found, that this is a great time to invite someone to connect with you or your business on social media or through your email list. (Sidebar: it's poor form to add someone who gives you their card to your email marketing list - they haven't opted in yet. I've been successful at including a link in my follow up email and inviting them to stay in touch, with a promise to not spam their inbox!)
Networking doesn't have to be a nightmare, and you can be more successful at it if you approach it thoughtfully and strategically, just like you do the rest of your business. It is integral in order to grow your business.
Where are your favorite places to network? Do you have any strategies that we should incorporate into our routine? We'd love to hear from you.