Networking is an essential part of every successful business plan. Without networking, how are you going to meet the new people who could potentially become new clients? Sure, your business may receive the odd referral from an existing client after a job well done, but those type of word-of-month referrals certainly aren’t a sustainable way to grow and expand your business.
But effective networking means more than just showing up at an event, approaching a bunch of people and striking up a conversation with a killer opening line. Effective networking that will actually benefit your business is a three-step process: planning, preparation and follow-up.
Make a plan
Business owners (or the person responsible for generating new business) must spend between 20% and 30% of their time on business development activities to have the best chance of success. That’s no small feat so, amongst other business development activities, plan to attend at least two networking events per month. If you’re a member of a weekly group (such as a BNI chapter) that only counts as one event (yes, even though you go every week) so look for another event as well. Check out your local Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade, or browse meetup groups for other networking event ideas.
Once you’ve decided on an event to attend, do as much research as possible beforehand. For example, if there’s an attendee list available, check it out and set a goal of meeting one particular person, or someone in a particular industry, at that event. This goal doesn’t have to be specifically related to your business; it could be someone you want to meet for personal reasons or someone who you think may be a good connection for someone else you know. Being a connector is a valuable way to build and maintain business relationships.
Never ever attend a networking event without first preparing your expandable elevator pitch. A solid elevator pitch is essential to spark interest in your company, create awareness of a specific project or product and act as self-promotion. It has to be memorable, succinct and interesting. And when we say succinct, we mean it should only be about five seconds long. Anything longer will lose the attention of your audience.
Of course, once you’ve hooked them into asking for more, you’d better be prepared to expand on your opening statement in such a way that informs without confusing.
After you attend the event, shake a lot of hands and take a lot of business cards, always follow up with everyone as soon as possible. A quick email saying how it was nice to meet them will do and will help keep you a little more top of mind. You have about a week to make this happen before they start to forget who you are, but the sooner you send those emails, the better.
Finally, remember the planning you did at the start to figure out the one person you wanted to meet while at the event? Networking events are a great way to meet people, but not a great way to really get to know them. Make sure to schedule a follow up meeting — a coffee or a lunch — with them or anyone else you may want to get to know better. Those meetings count towards your business development time and are essential to the sales process.