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Networking tips – making the most of business events

Ben Pindar posted this on

Ben Pindar

Networking events are a powerful tool in the business arsenal. Cold calls are exactly that, cold and inpersonal, but networking events and business conferences allow you to walk up to your target client and shake them warmly by the hand. You can start to build a trusted relationship and that means the following sales call now has a purpose and that client knows who you are and is already “warmed up” to the idea of buying from you.

Few would argue that networking is a vital ingredient in business success, but it can be a significant challenge. A lot of people I know dread networking, asking ‘how do I introduce myself to a potential client’, ‘what do I talk about’ and, most importantly, ‘how do I win business from networking?’

So, to help dispel those fears, I’ve created these simple tips to help people make the most of networking events and ensure they see a return from business conferences.

If you’ve ever doubted the value of networking, look no further than the county of Yorkshire in England.

Yorkshire has much to be proud of. Aside from breathtaking countryside, a world-renowned heritage and the Yorkshire pudding, it has a powerful and connected business network. Yorkshire’s business leaders take a great deal of pride in their roots and that is perhaps best seen in the unstoppable rise of The Yorkshire Mafia – an 8,000-strong LinkedIn community of entrepreneurs who are committed to supporting each other and networking.

The rise of Geoff Shepherd’s Yorkshire Mafia has been nothing short of remarkable. Using the power of social media, the savvy operator has created a LinkedIn group that connects businesses across God’s Own County in a way never seen before.

The culmination of this social media network is the Buy Yorkshire conference, which has quickly grown to become one of the biggest networking events in the UK. This year, the conference on May 13 and 14 in Leeds, attracted 5,000 delegates and more than 180 exhibitors.

The sheer number of people involved presented amazing opportunities for businesses to build new relationships and lucrative connections, while also identifying new opportunities and seeking advice and guidance for their own business.

With these types of business events, it’s important to make use of the time and money you dedicate to them. But, how do you do that?

Business research

The first step for any networking event or conference is preparation. Ask yourself what do you want to get out of it? Look at the delegate list and see who is exhibiting – the list of the Buy Yorkshire exhibitors is here.

Identify those you want to speak to and research them. Look at their LinkedIn profiles and visit the website to see what they do and what they have been up to. By building up a profile, you will quickly be able to see what interests them and it will provide you with useful conversation tips to grab their interest and start building a relationship.

Equally, identify those who can’t benefit your business so you have a clear list of targets before you arrive on the day.

For exhibitors, it’s also important to have targets. At events such as these, make sure your people have clear goals to speak to a set number of people. In each instance, they need to be able to identify key issues for each business along with contact details and cards so you can easily follow-up on the conversation after the event.

Networking topics

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of networking is getting a conversation going. I’ve been to hundreds of events and at every one I’ve seen people lingering on their own on the outskirts staring intently at their phone or browsing the buffet.

Breaking into a group or initiating a conversation can summon those same feelings of dread you had on the first day of school, but you won’t win any business by playing Candy Crush on your phone or debating whether to have a third croissant.

Often it’s best to have a script. If you are targeting a few specific individuals, tailor the opening lines to their business. For example – “I saw you recently won an award or contract with…” or “I was interested to see you make/are working with… – can you tell me how you did that?”

In the situations where you don’t know anything about the people around you, have a few stock questions to help the conversation flow.

When you first approach the group remember to smile – someone shuffling up with a grimace of horror on their face isn’t going to make a great first impression. Then ask if they mind you joining the conversation and provide a brief introduction – just your name and company.

Now is the time to turn to your stock phrases. Duncan Nuggets shares ten killer networking questions, but the rule is to use this opportunity to build relationships and gain some insights into the people around you.

Some of the questions I often use include

  • Why did you come to this event?
  • How did you get into your line of work – what do you like / dislike about your work?
  • What separates you from your competition?
  • What are the biggest challenges you face?

And a personal favourite as it always lightens the mood and helps people to open up…

  • What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you in business?

Remember, networking is all about building relationships. You are looking for insights into their business so you can identify opportunities to sell to them later.

Listen, don’t sell

Networking is never about selling. While it’s important to let people know what your business does, keep it quick and simple. You need a short, snappy elevator pitch that will be memorable but that doesn’t dominate the conversation.

The key is to listen. Dave Roos says networking should only look to build meaningful relationships that can then be turned into deals further down the line.

Show interest; ask relevant and insightful questions and offer insights and experiences in return. Make sure you only take up 20 per cent of the conversation. One of the greatest tricks I used as a journalist was saying nothing – you’ll be surprised what you can learn when people are left to fill the silence.

Be memorable

For delegates, being memorable is about having something interesting to say. A former colleague, the editor of North West Business Insider Chris Maguire, asks everyone to share an interesting fact about themselves and then makes a note of it on the back of their business card. It’s a great way of remembering who they are and having a conversation starter next time you speak.

For others, it’s about having a personal USP. More often than not, it’s about sharing a story that will stick in their mind. Meredith Leveson says the key is to be passionate about what you do. Enthusiasm leaves a lasting mark and people will want your passion in their business.

Another great way to help cement relationships is introducing them to new people at the event. By simply using their name and saying a little about them, you demonstrate an interest in them and build a far more personal rapport.

Memorable exhibitors

For exhibitors, being memorable can be a challenge when there are 180 others around you all vying for business.

Many opt for the most extravagant stand with their branding front and centre. While that may turn heads on the day, will it stick in the mind in the days that follow? Others opt for spectacular interactive displays, such as computer-simulated Formula One racing or giant Scalextric tracks. I’ve enjoyed many of these distractions, but I can’t tell you which business was hosting them today.

More often than not, a simple, free gift with your branding and contact details on will be the most effective way of attracting people. Highlights for me include a twisting puzzle, a jelly eyeball and a USB dog that furiously moves around when plugged into a computer. All are branded and all are on my desk today.

It’s always the simple things that work best. I remember one networking event where at least 10 people were scouring the tables at the end of the day hunting for leftover pads of branded post-it notes.

As for the stands themselves, the best are the simple, clean and uncluttered ones that clearly convey what the business does. Most importantly, they are fronted by people standing ready with a smile. One golden rule is to resist temptation and never stand in pairs as people find it very difficult to break into a conversation between two people.

The chief executive of Northern Lights PR, Victoria Tomlinson, once made everyone in the company wear a white rose at an event and threatened dire consequences if two roses where seen together. It’s a simple but very effective tool that ensures your team are actively working the room.

Another consideration is who is best placed to get the contacts you need at the event? While you might be the driving force behind the business, are you the best person to make the most of these “cold contacts” at the conference? You are paying a substantial amount to take a stand and it’s always worth considering hiring in professional sales people to make sure you maximise the benefit of this opportunity.

Follow up

The final and most important part of any event is following-up on those contacts. In the case of the gifts I mentioned above, not one of those businesses has been in touch after the event and that is a clear missed opportunity.

Clear your diary after the event and make sure you have the time to make follow-up calls and then attend any meetings to seal the deal and secure the business you need.

It sounds simple, but it’s often overlooked. It’s an old adage, but it is hugely important to strike while the iron’s hot. You’ve put in the hard work, now is the time to get in touch while they still remember who you are and still have the taste of the jelly eyeball in their mouth.

Please comment below to share your own networking tips or tricks and talk about what has impressed you.

Comments:

  1. Be memorable – this really does work. There are people that I have never actually met that I recognise based on some kind of exaggerated dress sense, sense of style, well chosen prop. It can be a double edge sword but it certainly seems to work.

  2. Rob, you’re quite right and apologies for underselling the Mafia. As of today (May 16 2014) the Yorkshire Mafia has 15,374 members.
    Many thanks for the comments and I hope they prove useful. It would be great to hear feedback on your own networking experiences.

  3. Enjoyed reading the post above, really explains everything in details,the post is very interesting and effective. Thank you for sharing and good luck for the upcoming posts.

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