As a time-strapped businessperson, how do you figure out which networking events to attend and which you should let go by the wayside? A networking strategy can help you decide which events are worth your time. Here are three easy—and essential—questions you need to answer in order to create a plan that will work for you.
Question #1: Who are my best prospects?
You’d be surprised at the number of business professionals who can’t clearly define their best prospects. Most of them either reply, “Everyone!” – or with some other vague description that sounds good on the surface but doesn’t offer specifics. This is why business professionals so often find themselves running all over town trying to attend every networking event that comes down the pike.
Since serial networkers don’t have time to follow up immediately with the people they meet, they often don’t see results in the way of increased sales. So they throw their hands in the air and wail, “Networking doesn’t work for me!” But as a smart, enterprising businessperson, you already know that networking works. It’s just a matter of developing a strategy that connects you with the right people and allows you the time to properly follow up with them.
Some people aren’t even sure what their “ideal prospects” look like. It’s easy to go back and take a look at your past client list. Who are your very best customers? What industries are they in? How long have they been in business? Are your customers businesses or consumers?
The owner of a vacuum center that I know provides a good example of how this works. You might be thinking that his customer is anyone who needs a vacuum cleaner, right? Not really. This entrepreneur would say that his ideal customer is a woman with children or pets (or both) who likely lives in a very nice neighborhood and drives a Lexus, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Infiniti. She is most concerned with the health of her family and a quality product, not someone shopping for a bargain-basement deal. Why is it important to be this specific? Because if he tells you to send him anyone who needs a vacuum cleaner, does anyone come to your mind right now? Probably not. But if he says you should send him busy women with kids and pets who drive luxury cars or SUV’s, a particular person is more likely to pop into your head.
Related: Don't Be a Networking Frog
Once you’ve put together a profile of the people you’ve worked with in the past, pick up the phone and run it by a few trusted friends and colleagues. Those who are close to you often have insights into patterns that you tend to overlook because you’re busy with day-to-day operations. Once you get that nailed down, you can go on to the next question.
Question #2: Where can I meet my best prospects, or people who can introduce me to my prospects?
Networking doesn’t mean just hopping into the car and attending the next Chamber of Commerce event. Yes, the Chamber and other business associations are excellent means of finding and meeting new prospects, and we recommend them as a great starting point. But as your business evolves and you begin targeting specific niche markets, there are other venues that fall outside typical networking events. And that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we’re going to discuss here.
Generally speaking, if you’re trying to meet more small business owners, you’ll want to spend time at your local Chamber of Commerce, a local business association, or with a referral group. Not only do these groups have exactly the type of audience you want to meet, but also with referral groups, there’s typically a system in place that helps you – help others to get more referrals for you.
If your business is geared more towards consumers, then getting involved with your kids’ events—Little League, Girl Scouts, or your church’s youth group—is another good way to meet the right people.
If you’re that real estate agent who wants to meet first-time homebuyers and people interested in moving downtown, you’ll probably find more prospects by networking at downtown events. It doesn’t matter which event, as long as it’s being held in the center of the city. That should bring you into contact with people who might be thinking about moving out of their apartment and into a house. Look also for networking events likely to be attended by young professionals, since these are the people most likely to be living in an apartment while accumulating the disposable income to buy a downtown condo or home.
Question #3: Who, exactly, do I want to meet?
Most people are not well connected in any practical sense. However, even accomplished networkers sometimes fail to realize that they’re closer to a much-desired contact than they imagine. The principles behind making the right kind of connection can be summed up in the simple adage “You don’t know who they know.”
The idea is that the greater the number of networks you’re connected to, the greater the chance that there’s a short chain of contacts between you and anyone you’d care to meet. All you have to do is recognize that fact and ask a few people a specific question or two. The answers will either put you in direct contact with a prospect or lead you in the direction of the networking events you need to attend. Even if you can’t name the specific people you want to meet, the better you can describe them, the greater the chance that you’ll get to meet your ideal contact. The secret ingredient in this principle is specificity.
The way to meet the unknown contact is to be as detailed as possible without being too exclusive. You can do this by starting your question like this: “Who do you know who…” You complete the sentence with specifics: “Who do you know who is a new parent?” “Who do you know who belongs to an organization that builds houses for the homeless?” By asking for a particular kind of contact, you focus the other person’s attention on details that are more likely to remind him of a specific person than if you asked, “Do you know anyone who needs my services?”
Finally, remember that it’s important to surround yourself with quality business contacts, since the best way to your ideal contact very often is through someone you already know.