In the era of relationship marketing, we cannot passively connect in face-to-face networking opportunities. Presence has power and engagement is the fuel. Individual approaches to networking vary, but the successful among us strategically plan to optimize the value for sales and customer loyalty.
According to a recent survey conducted by International Association of Business Communications, Millennials (individuals born between the year 1980 and the year 2000) frequently, use electronic communications. However, they are equally comfortable in face-to-face situations and the preferred method for Baby Boomers remains face-to-face. Face to face networking is our premiere opportunity to become memorable and relevant. Regardless of the venue, business owners, job seekers, or community builders are best served to treat the networking activity as yet another part of high-priority work assignments; planned with care, goal-driven, and strategically designed with action-step details.
Much like a job search, we network for an opportunity to work with someone. Consequently, we must prepare with the same diligence and serious intent to cultivate the most benefit. If you want the job, the client, the opportunity, prepare to earn the relationship!
Where do we network?
Everywhere! We can choose to interact with people each time we leave our office or home. We “choose”. Interaction with others is a choice. Until we make a decisive effort to begin or develop a relationship with another person, we have not begun to network. There are countless possibilities, wherever there are people! However, let’s focus on the proverbial networking event; an occasion specifically designed to provide people with an opportunity to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships. Formal networking events are social venues that occur before, during and after a business conference or training event, sponsored by community agencies such as the Chamber of Commerce or trade associations or clubs, or career fairs. Research tells us that that the majority of our human communication is nonverbal. In fact, as much as 90 percent of face-to-face communication is nonverbally conveyed. Networking events provide excellent opportunities to go where you can best influence others utilizing all of your engagement tools, your words and actions.
Value is the driver for networking
Mutually beneficial relationships emerge from the perceived value of its members. Like our image in a mirror, value is reflected. If there is no seeming need (or want) for a thing, then the thing will have no value, or the investment/cost will appear to be unnecessary. According to Julie Schwartz, Marketing Strategist for ITSMA (IT Services Marketing Association), there are three fundamental types of value propositions for the stages of the buying process:
Segment-based- The epiphany or awareness stage when people are inspired to learn more,
Role-based- The interest stage where deeper levels of understanding occurs, including needs, desires, motivations, expectations, goals, fears, skills, and biases, and
Client-specific- Designed to move people from interest to confidence, or buy mode. Particular needs and deeper understanding of the client occurs, such as; knowledge of educational background, personal pursuits, association memberships, business goals and how they are measured, the client’s definition of success, and, of course, the client’s pain points.
In the networking process, consider that we are working to meet as many people as possible within a fleeting timeframe. The focus for networking is most certainly on the segment-based value proposition stage, epiphany, awareness and inspiration. You will meet and interact to know more about the people with whom you interact and to establish some engagement groundwork. The effective framing (or value) statement establishes your significance during the networking communication. Keep in mind that the fundamental task to prepare for the networking process is the value statement. In other words, what is the value of you and/or your business to others?
Strategically Plan for Networking events
Planning for networking events includes some personal and professional preparation. Too often, when left with serendipitous meetings, significant encounters may slip away. Set goals around networking activities. Networking events are opportunities to show others who you are-what sets you apart from others. Thus, how your new relationship with them differs from the competition.
Plan your participation in a networking event as you would plan a business meeting, a team building activity, or a prospecting appointment. This event may be your first, and possibly, only chance to impress someone. Demarais and White, authors of First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About how Others See You, recommend that we assess our social gifts, recognize and appreciate our unique combination of core social benefits. For example, earnestly address, and provide examples, for questions such as, “Do I make others feel appreciated?”, “Do I smile and lean toward others when I listen to them?”, “Do I elevate others’ mood?” [Demarais, A. and White, V., (2004)]
Of course, as with all planning, set a goal for the event. Do you plan to meet specific people? How many people do you plan to meet? Keep in mind, your goal for the event is NOT to make a sale. Remember the segment-based value proposition? A goal for this event is to create an opportunity to be liked, to begin relationships. The goal for meeting people is to get permission to move to the next step and create an opportunity to meet again. Networking events are loaded with potential to fill your calendar through the gateway of “I enjoyed this conversation so much, let’s get together again”.
Your Framing Statement
Framing, or creating your value statement, is a primary step for networking planning. Conversations at networking events are often fast-paced and open to interruption. Prepare a framing statement that comes naturally and expresses your passion for what you do. When we are enthusiastic about our business or career, we sometimes use words and phrases that overly express our processes or attributes. Develop a succinct statement, no longer than 20 seconds, to describe what you do and how it has value. Keep in mind, excitement is contagious, so develop an invigorating statement-a message that fully expresses your enthusiasm.
Prepare for the Event
To be relevant is to be aware. Create a pattern in your day-to-day activities that keeps you inspired and interested in community and world events/happenings, new trends, and understand the workings of various occupations. Become familiar with the businesses and industries in the network community. Learn about the nature of various areas of work, what kinds of roles people fill in their work, any information that may be relevant to your framing statement. You cannot tie your value to another person’s life or work unless you know about what he or she does and who they are.
Be Aware of Logistics
If you are one of those people who find themselves dreading such events, give yourself a “job”. Arrive early with appropriately placed nametag (right lapel or shoulder) and business cards (easy to reach pocket). Take a few moments to peruse the nametag list and identify anyone you may want to meet. Look over the event room and become familiar with the layout of activities. Greet people as they arrive and assist in making them feel comfortable and welcome. In other words, “own” the room. Early arrival is very important to avoid entry after people have begun to cluster into groups. As you welcome people, make eye contact and focus to remember their name. Restate the name often and offer a firm handshake at the onset.
Be the Naive Listener
Ask friendly, unassuming, open questions that force people to talk about themselves. Focus on the person you are with at any given moment. Do not look around the room or become easily distracted. In fact, demonstrate deep respect in the conversation as you listen closely and “watch” their words. Remember, you are at the event to learn about others. Be the intentional, nave listener. In other words, as you focus on their words, mentally tie in your value statement to the person’s business or concerns. Train yourself to remember meaningful details. Make notes as you take breaks away from the crown while the information is fresh. Identify areas of mutual interest and ask permission to follow up. You may need to advance your listening skills to periodically update your framing statement. Understand that you will not be relevant if your value does not reflect the changing needs of your network. Naive listening helps you to receive and process others’ wants and needs.
Value your network with routine maintenance
Develop a system to record and maintain your contacts. Within one day after the event, process your notes and business cards to an electronic file system to provide ease for returning calls and sending mailings. Most email providers such as MSOutlook, Gmail, or Yahoo, include areas on the interface to make notes. Utilize the organizational tools for quick reference. Write down pertinent facts and log the details into your contact database. Personal notations can provide an excellent starting point in your next conversation with that person. Your reference to a prior conversation validates that they are memorable!
As you begin your contact regiment, integrate methods to nurture your base with periodic newsletters, social networking tools such as Facebook, Linked, Blogs, Twitter or other preferred media. If you are diligent to maintain relevance with your contacts, keep in mind their interests. As you research the internet for information pertaining to topics that may be of interest to others, reach out with an email and link for them to see. Keep in mind: Stay away from political or culturally charged topics. And please, do not spam! Messages received with long lists of others’ email addresses in the “Forward to” block are insulting and do not flatter your contact. It is difficult to feel special in a forwarding list.
Your well-maintained network supports follow-up with contacts. Establish your integrity and value as you are the first to ask questions, as you provide useful resources, and you are the first to say “thank you”!
A stack of business cards is not a sales strategy, but don’t leave them behind!
Effective networking is a skill. Strategic planning for the process can pay off in remarkable ways. How can you achieve the rich benefits that face-to-face networking? Be intentional! Identify the events that may be most beneficial. Develop and practice your framing/value statement. Recognize and appreciate that the value of your network is what you learn from others through naive listening. And, when asked, give your new friend your business card.