I hear a lot of people say that they're not good at networking. But I imagine many of us were never taught how to network, so how could we expect to be any good at it?! So let's start at the beginning and take a look at the basics of successful networking. Maybe you'll realize you know more than you thought you did, or see some opportunities for new strategies!
What is Networking?
First off, you already have a network. Your network are the people who think you're pretty great and support the work you're doing. They want to help you succeed in your efforts, and unlike your mom, they have some ability to help you in this. You already have some people like this in your life. Networking is simply an effort to make that group of people slightly larger.
The basic concept behind networking is to talk to other people so more people know what you're doing. This should then, through the grapevine, result in more business for you. The most successful networking results in a relationship between two business owners that goes beyond an exchange of clients. It becomes a web of professional "friends."
The first key part of networking is identifying who you're going to network with. You are looking for people who have something in common with your business/clientele but where direct competition is not an issue. Something in common is pretty easy to come by. If they're running their own business, and you are self employed, then you have all of the running-the-business stuff in common!
Furthermore, direct competition is often a non-issue. In service based industries, you as the practitioner are a key and unique commodity. Each consultant/teacher/massage/therapist is not interchangeable with the next. Think about what makes your work unique, then look for what makes their work unique, and you'll quickly realize that you have more in common than in competition.
Now that I've proven how many people you could network with, let's bring this into focus. Here are some specific ways to identify who to network with:
- Someone from a networking meet up event that seemed particularly interesting.
- Reach out to your existing network and ask each person to introduce you to one person in their network.
- Fill in the blank: "I'd really like to work with people who ________" Who else would help people like that? Then google/facebook/yelp for those professionals and reach out to them.
- If one of your clients requests a referral (or would benefit from one) this is a great opportunity! Look up some of those professionals on google/facebook/yelp, reach out and get to know them. Pick out your top 3 for your client, and keep all their info on file for the next time someone requests a referral.
Making First Contact
Now you know who you want to reach out to, but what do you say to them? Keep in mind that all small business owners are in a similar boat: we all need to network. We also all love to be flattered. A simple "I've heard great things about your work and I'd like to learn more about what you do. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and you can tell me about your practice?" will work in the vast majority of situations. If you're making contact because you met at an event or got their name from a mutual friend, be sure to mention that. It can also sweeten the deal to mention that you have a client you're looking to refer, if that is the case. If you don't have a specific referral in mind, you could also be looking to expand your referral network, though this works best when it makes sense that a client might turn to you for this sort of a referral.
I do recommend starting with a one-sentence introduction of yourself. However, you don't need to spell out that you want to tell them about your practice. Be sincerely interest in them and their work; you can share all the great things you do after they have a free cup of coffee in hand.
But What Do I Say?
You both have coffee and a comfortable seat at the coffee shop. ...so now what?
First off, be gracious and let them have the spotlight first. Ask them about what they do. How long have they been practicing? What do they love about what they do? What's their ideal client? (This is especially important if you want to refer to them; you want to send them quality people!)
It's pretty natural that after asking them a bunch of questions about their business that they'll ask you about yours. If not, you can force the subject with a polite, "can I tell you a little about what I do?" (And if you have an elevator speech, this would be a great time to deliver it!)
When sharing about your business, have a few talking points in mind that you want to be sure to get across. These should probably be (1) that they understand reasonably well what you do (especially if what you do is unique or uncommon) and (2) that they understand who your ideal client is so that if they know someone like that, that they'll know to refer them to you. You may also want to make sure you convey your years of experience or expertise in specific subject matter, though I wouldn't belabor these topics. Expertise and experience is best conveyed through action, not by saying that you have it and trying to convince them through words.
Keep in mind that networking should not be a sales pitch; you're not looking for the listener to become your client. Nor are you actually looking for them to hand over their clients immediately. Networking is most successful when it's seen as forging a relationship that will eventually become mutually beneficial. So also don't be afraid to let the conversation wander a bit and get to know the person a little.
The Follow Up
If you promised them something in your meeting, then be sure to follow up with it. If they seemed interested in your products or services ask if you can send them some brochures to have on hand for their clients. And if there's none of that, then a simple "Thanks for grabbing coffee with me" will do quite nicely!
I've mentioned a couple times now that networking is about building a relationship. So what comes next in this new relationship?! Let's first consider that the relationship might end before it began; it might not be a good fit. Maybe you didn't really like them. That's ok. You still did some great work making contact with them, and that alone may bear fruit!
Maybe you did jive with this person, so put a little reminder in your calendar to check back with them in 3-6 months for some more coffee. Or maybe you'll notice a professional event that you both might be interested in (maybe it's a networking event because we all need to network, right?) and you can invite them to join you at it. If you find you need to refer them a client, drop them an email and let them know that you were thinking of them and someone is headed in their direction!
It's also a very real possibility that they'll make contact with you. You don't have to put all the work into every relationship in order to have a robust network.
Remember that not everyone you invite to coffee will become a key feature in your network. Networking is an effort to make your network slightly larger, and your network should be made up of people who think you're pretty great and support the work you're doing, and that you do likewise for. It's impossible to know who could become an invaluable part of your network, so go to coffee whenever you get the chance. There is no such thing as wasted coffee since they now know more about what you do than the average joe.