Networking is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people, but if you hope to be successful these days you have to do more than offer a great product or service, you have to be well known – and arguably more importantly – well liked. Whether you are networking on behalf of a business or on behalf of yourself, it is important to build a relationship and a rapport with those in your industry, and there is a lot more to it than simply exchanging a few pleasantries, taking their business card and occasionally 'Like'ing one of their posts on Facebook.
Knowing how to make the most out of business networking events, such as exhibitions, conventions, talks, etc., is not difficult or unintuitive but it can feel unnatural when obviously both parties want to talk about themselves. What needs to be remembered is that it is in everyone's best interest to listen to what each other have to say, and that is what those who are truly effective at networking and making the most of professional networks do. That and the following.
Networking events are the perfect places to discover what others have available and how they could potentially benefit and complement what you have to offer. It is not enough to be simply told the same spiel they tell everyone else who happens upon them; to network effectively you have to probe and ask questions.
Knowledgeable people, whether they are talking about themselves or those who they represent, want to be found interesting, and when you press them for more information it gives the clear impression that you find what they are saying and what they have to offer interesting. This will put you in their good graces, which is invaluable if what they have to offer is truly remarkable.
Know Your Stuff
The occasional “umm” is fine, but nothing makes others doubt your professionalism and knowledge more than you having to rummage through papers every time you're asked a question. Turning up to a networking event without knowing a considerable bit about your business, as well as having a comprehensive understanding of your industry, is like turning up on opening night to a show that you are the star of without having learned your lines: no one will be impressed and it shall not be soon forgotten.
Of course no one expects you to know all the dates, facts and figures off the top of your head, but it will not hurt to be able to throw a few out off the top of your head, and preferably have enough so that you don't have to repeat the same statistic to everyone you meet.
It's Not All About Business
Well it is in so far as you are trying to build a professional relationship, not make new friends, but networking events are like marathons, you need to pace yourself. About two hours in everyone is ready for a little break, but rather than slinking off to your own corner, try to engage with those around you on a casual topic, maybe sports or a note-worthy current event.
Naturally we would never encourage smoking, but one of the best places to build these initial casual acquaintances is in a designated smoking area. This is because in a smoking area, or similar setting, everyone is slightly removed from the professional setting and therefore can feel a little bit more relaxed.
Plan A Second Meeting
At networking events, be it an informal fund raiser or a more professional industry function, everyone has the same thing in mind: to meet and mingle. If you attempt to push a relationship too fast or occupy a great deal of one person's time they may become antagonised by you and you may have lost a potentially beneficial lead.
Business networking events are designed so that you can meet a lot of people in a short period of time, so don't fight it. Instead, try to engage a different person every ten minutes and in that time gauge what they have to offer. If what they are saying sounds promising, before you move on ask them if you can visit them at a less hectic time, or phone them when they are in the office. Try to avoid emails unless as a last resort, as they can be quite impersonal and as they do not take up much of your time the recipient is less likely to give you much of theirs.
Obviously if you thought being yourself was good enough you would not be reading up on how to make the most out of business networking events, but you will be surprised how many people at exhibitions and other networking events come across as cocky, arrogant and disingenuous. So long as you are not any of those things you will likely be considered a breath of fresh air by most, and so long as you are still assertive, positive and passionate your networking efforts have a good chance at bearing fruit.
Bear this in mind: if you and your business really are the best then you have no need for anyone else, so you being at networking events really is just a waste of everybody's time. Every good business person knows their strengths and weaknesses and knows that others have theirs too. Being honest with yourself about this will help you to foster better professional relationships with the people who are best suited to you.
Give A Gift
Promotional gifts – personalised pens, for example – are great marketing tools, that really come into their own at networking events. Trying to push them on every person who walks by will probably not get you very far, but handing over a promotional pen with your company name and website on to someone who you have established a rapport with may encourage them to visit your website, 'Like' your Facebook page, follow you on LinkedIn, etc. all of which are positive first steps toward cultivating a good professional relationship.