Engaging with your contacts
Hilary Briggs has some tips for successful networking
Whether you're an existing self-employed trainer, have recently been made redundant and want to set up your own training business, or are an experienced trainer who's just been promoted to business partner and are now responsible for business development, you will need a network of contacts to help you deliver the results for your business.
Looking back to when I started my consulting business more than 12 years ago, I can remember that this seemed like a daunting prospect, especially if you've been in the relative comfort of a large company and not had any responsibility for sales (like me!). However, I've found that, despite all the mass of networking groups, online forums and networking skills courses, there are some basic, key points to address that will give you a direction and strategy that's right for you and your business.
So, how best to go about engaging with your contacts and developing your network?
Work out what you want
The most important place to start is to get clear about what it is you want to achieve, who might be able to help you - and who you already know who might fit the bill. There are a variety of reasons why you might choose to network. It's worth using the following as a checklist to make sure you're not missing any opportunities:
- get business It's a natural place to start, though it can unfortunately lead to a lot of poor networking, as people thrust their business cards at unsuspecting attendees at events - expecting it to lead to that dream assignment! We'll look at some tips and skills in a moment
- research new sectors You have to start somewhere and finding contacts who are in your desired new sector, or who know others who are, is a good way to investigate what the top issues are, what's in common with other sectors you've already got experience in and what the potential might be
- keeping your finger on the pulse If you are a self-employed trainer, it's particularly important to stay connected with other trainers to hear what they're up to, what client trends they are seeing and what courses they have been on, and so on. As Stephen Covey points out in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, smart people are always on the lookout for opportunities to "sharpen their saw" - ensure you have part of your network tuned to this outcome
- support network Again, for the newly self-employed in particular, it can be useful to have a network of 'supporters, who I'd classify as like-minded folk, most probably also self-employed or running a small business, who you can pick the phone up to and discuss whatever's on your mind from a business perspective - from handling VAT returns to dealing with slow-paying clients. It's probably best if they're not in the training sector, as it's good to have diverse views
- finding collaborators There's only so much we can do ourselves. While it's good to build a niche, sometimes you might want to enhance your offer, or have an opportunity land in your lap that really needs some additional expertise. This can work both ways too - so build links with fellow trainers and consultants who you might be able to use, or who might need your services, at some point
- finding suppliers Again for the newly self-employed, you will need various support services such as web design, marketing, IT services, admin support, accounts and bookkeeping or office space at some point in your journey. Finding potential companies through networking allows you to suss them out in a more informal setting, and to sound out existing customers more easily than if you simply do an online search.
Having identified the main areas of focus for your networking, it's time to consider the types of networking that there are, and which might suit you best.
There's a plethora of groups and formats out there, as well as completely informal networking that just involves speaking to people around you. Let's review the main types.
This covers regular (weekly/monthly) groups. If you've not consciously done any networking before, I'd recommend checking out some of these - ones such as BNI and 4Networking have many groups across the UK and are a good place to start. It's unlikely that you'll find your target HR director or L&D managers there, but what you really want is people who are dealing with your target organisations and have the potential to make introductions - even through different departments. They will also be great for finding those suppliers and supporters, and researching new sectors.
An example of how you can make the most of these kinds of group comes from Richard Fallon of Communicate Now. He had tried several of the formal networking groups. In fact, he didn't get lots of business when he was a member, even though he took the trouble to offer a workshop on "how to present with impact" to the organisation. Some months later, though, he got a call from one of the organisation's management giving him a contact at a very large engineering company - where he's now running workshops.
His learnings: cultivate good relationships, be authentic and be keen to help others, ie the secret is in how you engage with the people you meet. Potential clients and referrers need to feel a lot of trust in you and your organisation - offering sessions is a great way to demonstrate what you can do.
There are ad hoc formal networking events too - do your research on past attendees and any special focus they might have, to work out if they're worth going to.
Otherwise, why not set up your own events? As MD of Management Futures Consulting Ltd, Phil Hayes describes networking as being at the heart of getting business. The company organises around eight coaching master classes per year - each with a guest speaker on a particular theme and then the opportunity for the participants to network afterwards. The overall purpose is to give value to, and build relationships with, key contacts.
This can cover every situation under the sun (yes, including networking on the beach!). We have the opportunity to engage with people in all kinds of situations. For instance, I got talking to a lady on a train and that led to a successful assignment for her organisation.
Simon Eastwood of Eastwood Training Ltd has found that chatting to fellow parents in the school car park has then led on to dinner parties, doing a free one-to-one coaching session for one parent who happened to run a small business, that then led on to a referral to training work with one of his clients. Another parent had just become chairman of the local golf club and, after similar initial help, Simon picked up work from his daughter. Simon calls his approach "generous networking" .
Informal networking can blend into other sales and marketing activities, for instance Phil Hayes likes to keep in touch with all his existing, previous and potential clients - this might be as simple as sending articles, books or other items with the theme 'I thought you might find this of interest…'. "It's all about creating 'win-win'," he explains.
This can present a massive opportunity for networking and contact-building. For professional contacts, LinkedIn offers many possibilities such as creating specific interest groups. This is something that Phil Hayes is also keen on as it's another channel for disseminating added-value articles, tips and content.
Conferences and exhibitions
These often have side events focused on networking, and just visiting the stands at an exhibition gives you a great opportunity to meet people from your target organisations. I know a sales trainer who does this: he assesses how well the team on the stand is doing and then contacts the CEO afterwards armed with his field data. He's picked up various clients this way…
There are plenty of opportunities for networking; the bigger issue is how to choose how you'll spend your time.
My recommendations are to:
- build a mix of activities that would be sustainable within your time available. While it's good to focus on the ones you feel most comfortable with, stretching your comfort zone and trying ones that are less familiar will expand your network into new areas
- design your network so it covers both deep relationships (fewer people that you know really well and that you have mutual trust with) and breadth of contacts (more people that you know less well, but who cover diverse activities outside of your experience)
- check out groups and events in advance where possible, for instance by seeking references and talking to existing members
- be open to talking to people at all times
- consider what stage you' re at with your business and what the priorities are. If you've already got a couple of thousand contacts, your focus is going to be much more on maintaining these existing relationships and, importantly, asking them for referrals. If you're starting with just a handful, building volume will be important to give you connectivity.
The maxim I live by, though, is that the only thing that's certain is that, if you sit on your backside, nothing will happen! Make some decisions, get out there, and start engaging with people. While it's also possible that nothing may happen, it's far more likely that something will happen - even if it's completely unexpected. Review and learn from it.
What skills do you need?
So you've established your priorities, and which kinds of networking you'll be focusing on to start with. What are the key skills you need to engage with your contacts?
As I mentioned earlier, it's the area of getting business that seems to bring out the worst in people's networking. Before we look at what to do, let's consider some obvious ways to really put people off:
- totally self-focused An absolutely extreme case was the very first formal networking event I attended. Towards the end of the evening, a couple of women from a recruitment agency interrupted a conversation I was in to thrust their cards in my hand, saying "we want to ensure everyone's got our cards…" before rushing on to their next victims. Needless to say, I would not have even considered using their services had I needed them!
- hogging the conversation Talking only about yourself and quickly shifting the focus back onto you if the other person has managed to 'grab the ball' for a moment
- breaking rapport A classic way is peeking over the shoulder of the other person to see who else is around - and, by implication, who might be more interesting.
Contrast these with this approach: Alan Donegan of Enjoy Presenting described how a fellow member of his Toastmasters Club suggested he went along to a newer club, based at Microsoft, to help out doing some meeting roles. He was more than happy to do that and, after a few meetings, was invited to stay for lunch afterwards, at which point he found himself sitting next to the person responsible for training and development across the UK! Needless to say, he developed the relationship and, three years down the road, Microsoft is his biggest client - and it has led to a referral into Pepsi Co as well.
Here's my list of the most important skills I rate for networking. The good news is that the natural skill set for trainers should give you a head start over other networkers:
- ask open questions and really listen, rather than thinking about what you'll say next. Listen out for what they really care about, and ask questions such as how can I help you? Other questions such as what's an ideal contact for you? or how would I know if the next person I met would make a great client for you? are great as you're helping them get clear on their networking as well as gaining an understanding of who you might already know that might be just the person they're looking for
- build an empathetic connection Richard Fallon explains this as "being genuinely interested in them and what they need" . He likes to open up with how are you? It makes a pleasant change to the predictable what do you do?
- tell stories of how you've helped people - though avoid 'trumpet blowing'. I've yet to meet a really successful person that goes on and on about how great they are. However, stories are memorable and will help the other person understand what it is you offer and the benefits it has brought. Be succinct!
- work the room A key tip to get started is to look out for other people by themselves and engage with them. It's much easier than trying to break into a pair that's locked in conversation. Have the courage to break away from any colleagues who might be with you
- follow up and keep in touch Having made the initial engagement with people, follow up on any commitments you made. It's even more important to keep in touch once you have landed an assignment: there are strong networks within any sector and profession, and HR and L&D professionals are no different. Here's a further example from Richard Fallon: having successfully delivered a session at a graduate induction training programme for a large accountancy firm, on calling up the training manager afterwards, she referred him into a contact of hers who had a similar role in a consultancy organisation who was looking for a similar piece of work.
Before launching off to your first networking meeting, be clear on what you aim to achieve - who are the people most likely to be able to help you, and where might they hang out? Finding business is a natural choice here but, if you're just setting up, finding suppliers to support your business may be just as important.
Develop your skills - and use your existing training skills such as open questioning, listening and story-telling to engage with your contacts.
Most importantly, check you're in the right frame of mind - whether you want to call it "generous networking", "Givers Gain", or invent your own term, being prepared to help without any thought of reward will pay dividends. Alan Donegan summed it up: "The more you give and put out there, the more you get back."
So there's a balance to be struck between being very focused on what you want and reviewing the results of your efforts on a regular basis on the one hand, and giving out to the people you connect with without much regard of what will come back from them on the other. A quote from the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton captures this for me: "I have often marvelled at the thin line which separates success from failure."
The good news is that, if your networking hasn't been delivering all you want up to now, a few tweaks could put you onto the path of success.Hilary Briggs
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