Sometimes you just don’t know when a networking opportunity will present itself to you, but you should always be ready to seize the opportunity. For example, my wife and I were out for dinner recently and we were waiting in the front of the restaurant for our table to become available. In walked a couple who had a reservation after us, and they ended up waiting next to us.
The restaurant was quite busy so we began to talk with this couple. It turned out she was a real estate agent and her husband was a software executive. Networking opportunity? Let’s find out. In this type of situation, be it out and about for dinner or at a business networking event, I would handle it very similarly. I want to try to develop a quick relationship and not talk too much about what I do or products/services I sell in the beginning of our conversation. I try to ask most of the questions and do a lot of listening.
So I started our conversation with my usual first question: Are you from here originally? In our town, it seems like very few people you encounter are from here originally anymore, with the very large influx of new people moving in from out of state to our area. This line of questioning helps me determine a few things, and will impact the questions I may ask next. First, it opens up the dialogue and helps develop the relationship I’m trying to build. Second, if they are new to town, I can ask, did they just move, or are they building a new house, buying an existing house that might need renovations, etc.? This opens up a wide array of questions that could lead to future business. If they are from our town and have lived here for some time, they should have put down some roots, made some good friends and most likely have other great resources for possible referrals or other future opportunities.
My next question is, “What do you do?” I talked a bit about her real estate career and waited for her to ask what I do. I usually try to get the other person to ask me what it is I do, but if they don’t; I will typically tell them and give a ten second description of what it is I actually do. People will usually ask me a question or two and I’m happy to respond, but I’m really looking to redirect the questioning back their way. My next questions will usually be, “Are you working on anything exciting now?” I ask this question to everyone I’m networking with. I don’t care if they are car salesmen, brokers, software developers, builders, etc. People want to talk about things that excite them and talk even more about things they are proud of. Again, this line of questions opens up all other kinds of possible lines of questions that you can direct and use as possible opportunities.
Christine, the real estate agent, mentioned she’d just signed on with a developer who had 40 lots and was developing a new custom home neighborhood; she and her partner were brokers in charge of the marketing/sales for the all the properties. An opportunity has arisen! In this case, I always try to think if I have someone that I’m working with or know who might benefit from me connecting them to this new lead. If you can provide a referral for them, they will be more interested in providing you a referral in return.
I had a client who was interested in building a spec house in that price point and demographic, and said I would set up a meeting between them to see if the new development could be a fit for my client. Then I asked if they or the developer had settled on a cabinet supplier…and they had not. Bingo. Our table was then ready, just as it was getting good. We exchanged business cards and set up a meeting to get together with the developer for the following week.
Regardless of where you are at when you’re networking, common sense (and some guidance from the childhood lessons learned from our parents) tells us to look the person in the eye as you are speaking to them. I’ll also lean in a bit or tilt my head as though I am fully engaged in what the other person is saying. This will instill confidence in the person you’re speaking with that they have your full attention, which will make them feel more comfortable talking to you and more apt to chat with you longer and in greater detail. I will also try to use their first name mixed into our conversation two or three times. People tend to feel a little more important when they hear they name in conversation – plus, I have a terrible time remembering people’s names, so using their name in conversation helps me later with remembering them, what they do and how we met.
PLANNED NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES
I’m a firm believer that to have continued referrals from your networking sources you have to supply them cross referrals as well. This is the balance that keeps the relationship moving along and keeps your company at the forefront of their minds when referring you or your products/services.
In our business, we work primarily off referrals from other people and they are critically important to the success of our business. Builders and contractors make up the majority of this group; with new construction, we are usually referred by them, and in renovations, our company is typically referring them. It’s a two-way street that works well.
We all have these types of symbiotic relationships in our businesses that allow us to cross refer. The hard (but often lucrative) part is finding, developing and setting up a profitable referral/cross referral relationship with individuals or businesses that may not be related to your direct business.
This is where you have to get creative in developing new networking relationships. Find a small group of likeminded networking contacts and learn how you can refer and cross refer within that group of each other’s businesses, and the doors will begin to open. Don’t be afraid to ask them for the referrals. Ask, “Who do you know that would benefit from my products and services, and would you set up a meeting for us to talk further?” A personal introduction, be it in person or just an email or phone call, goes a long way for your credibility, and the likelihood of you getting a meeting set up skyrockets.
But remember, this only works long term if you know that it can’t just be all about you. You have to have something for them in return, i.e. a referral, lead or prospect for them. With a little creativity and some out-of-the-box thinking, you can put together a program that works for you and your networking contacts.
Networking doesn’t have to be that awkward happy hour business to business networking where you see how many business cards you can collect in two hours. If you find yourself at one of these events, make it worthwhile. Concentrate on spending time only with a few individuals and maximize the quality of the time you spend with them. Work to develop a relationship.
If networking opportunities present themselves outside of work, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with someone you might not know. You might have some great opportunities in front of you – and without asking you might never know!