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Making friends and influencing people

Successful networking could help seal your next business deal. Networking expert Michelle Wright, whose business, Cause4, supports charities and social enterprises, tells Steve Hemsley how.

For SME owners, acquisition of new business and new clients means networking is an essential part of the job. Even weak ties on social media can lead to important new business. But for those for whom networking doesn’t come naturally, getting the most out of even the most structured networking event can be a challenge - and potentially a missed opportunity to forge an alliance, win new business, or expand your area of influence.

Networking is work, and if you want to get a return for your business from it, then it is wise to set some targets.

To begin with, it is about quality rather than quantity. Set yourself a simple metric, such as wanting to generate three new business leads per event. Think about who will be in the room and seek out a couple of key contacts before the event. Networking well requires practice, so prepare. What is your message? Who do you want to speak to and what do you want to communicate?

When you arrive, take a deep breath and just go for it.

Don’t be shy about how you approach things. If you feel out of your comfort zone, it can be hard work to present yourself properly, but persevere and it’s worth it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions because most people are delighted to share their own knowledge and expertise.

One thing I struggled with in my early days of networking was getting stuck talking to one person or to someone who might not be useful to my business. A simple way to avoid this is to offer to top up drinks or to make introductions to other guests so you can escape and circulate. Don’t be embarrassed - it’s a totally natural thing to do at these events.

That said, during people’s responses, try not to be impatient. It can take time before your networking reaps rewards, and if they aren’t the most confident communicators you may find that you leave a conversation before a useful connection reveals itself.

Here are some basic do’s and don’ts to remember:

  • Do set targets for networking but don’t be ruled by them
  • Do follow up on connections, and do so within 24 hours of an event, before the momentum is lost and a lead goes cold
  • Do share. If you want referrals, offer to make referrals to people you trust
  • Do practice your “elevator pitch”. Make it short and memorable - people zone out if you give too much information
  • Don’t let your impatience to network mean you ignore responses. Many entrepreneurs “work the room” without actually listening to what people are saying to them. That’s not the way to make connections
  • Don’t be pushy with the self-promotion. It is irritating and it’s much better to give clear examples of things you have achieved, in context
  • Don’t be timid. Networking requires you to speak to people you don’t know and to really make an effort to find points of connection, even if you find that a challenge. It will pay off in the end