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November 13, 2008

MAKING CONTACT 2:Making the most of networking events

There are three key elements of successful networking: choosing the right event, making the right contacts while you’re there, and following up afterwards. Ian Whiteling looks at the best ways to approach all three.

Finding ways to maximise the level of engagement with customers and prospects is increasingly becoming a business imperative in these times of heightened competition. Events are seen as a key tool for achieving this aim, with networking activities being used more and more as a way of further enhancing engagement.

This means that there are now more networking events to choose from than ever before, so what criteria should you look for when deciding which to attend, and how can you get the most out of them once you’re there?

“It all comes down to relevance,” says Duncan Reid, event director at the Confex Group, which sees networking as a key element of the events it organisers. “As long as you are meeting people that can impact positively on your business, you should look to attend. Some will have more relevance in terms of new sales opportunities and introductions or attendance from key clients, but all should be considered.”

As well as using networking to help build existing customer relationships and strike up new ones, you can equally attend to find new and better suppliers. Whatever your purpose, Mandy Torrens, president of Meetings Professionals International’s UK Chapter, suggests making sure that the environment is right for the discussions you may want to have.

“This is why networking is often most productive before or after larger meetings that are attended on a regular basis,” she says.

Working the floor

Once you’ve found the right events to attend, your job has only just begun. How you ‘work’ the ‘floor’ is key to success or failure. First and foremost, don’t use networking events purely as an opportunity to pitch your products or services, as you will simply put people off.

Networking is all about getting to know people who could be useful to your business. So you need to find out as much about them and their business as you can, as well as tell them about you and your company. Finding this out as politely and as quickly as possible is vital to find out if they are relevant to you and you to them. If not you need to excuse yourself politely and move on. Otherwise, continue discussions, but always take a softly, softly approach – this is all about building contacts, not selling your services there an then.

“It’s unusual for a delegate to go into a networking event with a specific business objective,” says Torrens. “Harder business should be done outside a networking event in a more formal meeting. Usually the objective will be to run an idea past a contact, establish a more informal relationship or ‘catch-up’ on a specific contract or relationship.”

With this in mind, Torrens says it can be good idea to enter a networking event with (quite literally) something to bring to the party.

“It may be that the event is used to bring two of your contacts together, again doing this in an informal manner is important,” she continues.

No place to party
Torrens also recommends thinking carefully about the kind of things you want to communicate about your business and who you want to meet and talk to. She also advises making sure your presence reflects the standards of your business.

“Ensure that attendance at the event by you or your representatives starts and finishes on a business setting. Many networking events are used as social outings for a team and can look like that to an outsider.”

Although a key element of networking is socialising, like Torrens, Amanda Stranack director of event management at business travel and events solutions company Inntel, recommends staying focused on your aims rather than simply having a good time.

“Having too much fun and losing sight of the reason for being there can be a major pitfall,” she says. “There is also a danger of spending too much time with one person. Once you have identified the opportunity and agreed follow up, move on as there may be a lot more opportunities in the room.”

Jonathan Byrne, commercial director of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, agrees, adding: “You need to have a strong discipline behind the social face, and the confidence to introduce yourself to strangers, ask engaging questions that draw out the information you want and the polite ability to disengage with causing offence.”

He also recommends making notes. “Use their business cards or a small pad,” he says. “And make sure you have a plentiful supply of your business cards.”

Following up

Jotting down details about the people you meet helps you remember them after the event and also enables you to make relevant and engaging follow ups – which are arguably the most important part of the networking process. And there’s nothing worse that giving the impression that you don’t remember someone.

“Follow up with a friendly email the following day and set objectives about how you are going to develop each contact,” recommends Byrne.

The key word here is ‘friendly’, as, once again, you should avoid the hard sell.

“One of the most common mistakes that many companies get wrong is the follow up, either by not doing them at all or by going in too strong,” says the Confex Group’s Reid. “The follow up should reflect the tone of the networking, so do not go in too aggressively.”

Ultimately, through networking, you’re building and strengthening business relationships that could be key to the future of your business, so treat the contacts you make with respect and nurture them carefully. The personal touch handled in the right way can not only deliver customers and suppliers, but ones that will stick with you loyally for the long term.

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