Get out from behind your desk

Networking is not a natural skill for everyone and can seem like a costly time commitment but generating opportunities is all about putting your face in the frame. Online networks can be a useful starting point.

Forging new connections is essential for growing businesses but many people are pressed for time and don’t know how to maximise the potential of networking events. A targeted approach will work best, according to experts.

1. Don’t stop
There are always reasons why you might not want to turn up to a networking event but the truth is that getting out and about is what generates opportunities. Michelle Daniels, founder of marketing agency Extended Thinking works with professionals on developing their profiles. She believes that one hangover of the recession has been a tendency for people to stay at their desks. However, those who have continued to get out and network are doing well. The recession has also resulted in people becoming more cautious about who they do business with, and many are putting greater emphasis on working with people they trust or those who come recommended.

“The people who are familiar faces or who have a good track record are likely to do better,” Michelle says. “By being active and visible you can keep yourself front of mind and create opportunities. If you’ve stopped networking, you may need to rethink it for the longer term.”

2. Don’t waste time
You should, however, make sure you are selective about the events you go to. “My advice is to ask your clients and contacts about the events they attend. If you have a very clear idea about who you want to target – prospects in the technology sector, for instance – then look for events that are popular with them,” says Michelle. Avoid judging regular events on just one outing, however. Try three times and then decide if it’s likely to bring you decent opportunities. “You need to be active but also evaluate how it’s going for you,” she says.

“It can take around seven positive encounters before you build trust with a new contact.” Michelle Daniels, Extended Thinking

3. Brush up your social skills
The key to reaping rewards from networking – and getting over the fear of attending them – is active listening, Michelle believes. “You will find that more opportunities come your way if you listen and ask questions. If you explore with people what they do and what issues and problems they’re encountering, you’re much more likely to uncover ways in which you can help – or, if not you, then someone in your network.” You also need to make sure that you present yourself in a way that’s helpful. Michelle recommends practising your elevator speech but keeping it flexible, so that it can be tailored to the person you’re speaking to. Then you can show interest in an informed way.

4. Always follow up
If you’ve identified that you might be able to help a new contact, don’t leave it to them to get in touch – they probably won’t. During the conversation, build permission to follow up later, Michelle says. This shouldn’t be a hard sell: it could be a chance to send them some material, or refer them to someone in your network. “It can take around seven positive encounters before you build trust with a new contact,” she says.

5. Make use of LinkedIn
A great deal can be achieved online as preparation for meeting face-to-face. Adam Gordon, managing director of Winning Work says there are 225 million people on LinkedIn and 76% of them will accept an invitation to connect with someone they don’t know – provided that person can show they are relevant to them and potentially useful. “Bear in mind that if you only use LinkedIn to keep in touch with people you know, then nothing new will come of it,” he advises.

He recommends setting aside some time each week to build your network from your desk. Target those people you most want to get to know and send them a tailored invite – not the standard LinkedIn message. Set out why you think it might be helpful to connect and look to turn that into an offline relationship.

LinkedIn also enables you to create an audience among whom you can share information or start debate via relevant groups. It is important you don’t use these groups as a conduit for your sales message as that turns people off. Instead, share information and expertise.

All this shouldn’t require a big time commitment. An hour a week, plus perhaps five minutes a day checking what’s going on in your network should yield dividends.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK