Warning! This blog post may be a bit controversial so ask the kids to leave the room. (This blog is only about open-networking events). The business of networking, (yes, I do think it is a business), is a form of parallel universe that can take years to study. It is a universe where you find a few types of inhabitants - the "pro", the "rookie", the "imposter" and the "mensch". The "pro" as the name suggests, are those professional networkers who attend every event, work the crowd, move very fast and move out just as quickly. They are far too important to linger and schmooze and if they stop and acknowledge your existence, you should be honored. The "rookie", heard about this cool event and decided to check it out. He/she not quite sure how this works but does a good job being friendly and handing out business cards. You can spot them easily too; their hands is always in/out of their pocket with a card and they always use the "so what do you do" mantra.
The "imposter" is easy to spot. He/she is here to get a free drink or better yet a nice meal. They are usually found at the bar or sitting at a corner with a heaping plate of hors d'oeuvres. They are harmless, they are too busy eating and won't bother anyone. Don't try to strike a conversation with them unless you want to go home with food stains.
Finally, the "mensch" are those well-meaning networkers who come to the event hoping to get referrals and make new connections. Their networking skills are not fine-tuned, they are open and honest about what they do, sometimes wondering why people just smile and keep moving.
So what's not working? Here's Merriam Webster's definition of networking: "the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically : the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business ".
The sole purpose of networking is the latter part of the definition, namely, "the cultivation of productive relationships". Again, the last word is key: "relationships" - it's about making "connections" period. The cultivation process takes place after the networking meeting. Then, and only then, will you find out if this can be developed into a relationship and wind up being productive i.e., the exchange of referrals, leads or business.
That sounds straight forward, so why isn't it working too often? Let's run down the list:
- False and unrealistic expectations of the outcome. Let's face it, for the most part, you are meeting a bunch of strangers. You know little or nothing about them or their ability to serve your potential referrals. Most rational business persons will not take a business card and immediately refer someone they know to that stranger. Many networkers don't get this. Networking is not an opportunity to "pick up business", it simply makes no sense.
- Networkers fail to understand that the real work begins after the event ended: thank you note, ask for a meeting, etc. Going home with a stack of business may make you feel great, but you've wasted a few hours of your day.In my 30+ years in business, I have exhibited at over 200 trade shows. I observed a phenomenon I call "T.S.S - Trade Show Syndrome". For whatever reason, when someone steps into your booth, they become a different person: "you have to call me", " you know, I think we can work on this together", " I have an urgent project" -- but guess what?95% of the time, you follow up with those "hot" leads and they never return your call (trust me, they were properly qualified and categorized).Something similar happens at networking -- you take a card, give a card after you did your due diligence and get to know the person long enough to feel some "cultivation" is in order. But, either you or the other person never respond to the infamous "let's meet for coffee" request.
- Your target market is rarely present at a networking event. But wait, you scream, that is true but my "strategic partners" are there and they have a direct link to the end user. Indisputable fact my friends but here's the rub: "if you don't give, you don't get". It's a standoff! If I'm a CPA and I have access to small business owners, I'm not opening up my network of clients until you give me one. There you have it. Oh by the way, you're not giving me a client until you get to know me better right? For that to happen, we need to follow up and get to know each other. Forgettabout it! Go back to #2.
Writing about why networking isn't working is as exhausting as going to them. Back to the trade show days, we would be working a tough show for 4 days, on our feet from eight am to seven pm with very little traffic, but someone will always say what I have come to despise "you know, all you need is one good lead to pay for the show". And I always respond "and how many of those have you gotten over the years we've been staring at each other across the aisle"?
Don't get me wrong -- there are certainly networking events that are better than others. I find that the open "UFC-style crowd" are pointless. If you want to socialize and unwind, knock yourself out. The better events are "managed" by the organizer and the key to success is that there has to be an educational component to the meeting. I am not talking about "sponsors" who paid to be featured and are selling what they do. I am talking about a presentation or discussion by a professional in a field who is there for the sole purpose of educating the crowd.
My friend Adrian Miller, the "guru" of good networking is correct when she advises us not to chase networking events. "Be strategic about your choice of events" she says. They have to meet your goals and your target audience.
- Networking is a form of business development. It requires planning and execution just like any other tactic you use.
- "Time is Money". Evaluate your ROI when it comes to networking. If it's not working, then spend those few hours writing thank you letters to your customers, ask for referrals etc.
- Have a goal in mind when you attend an event. If you're looking for a specific connection, ask for help " hey, I'm looking for a graphic designer"
- Make a commitment to respond to follow up requests.
- Go to the follow up meeting prepared: study what he/she does for a living, review their web site and have a list of questions as well as a goal of what the outcome of the meeting should be. Your'e not networking anymore, it's all business now.
- Despite "what's not working", don't be quick to dismiss networking. Be smart about your choices. Check the venue, the sponsors and organizer. Paid events, tend to be better events, and those that combine some form of "education" are best.
- Read or listen to Jeffrey Gitomer's " The Little Black Book of Connections". It has completely transformed my approach to networking.