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Business Networking – Turn Up. Say Hello. Tell People What You Do.

It’s time to stop hiding behind your Zoom screen.

From its earliest days, the rapid growth of the Internet unwittingly created an extraordinary opportunity for business owners to generate income in a way they could never have dreamed possible; with eCommerce websites. Near-instant marketing through online paid advertising, e.g. Google Ads launched in 2000, plus significant advances in technology and security, means the time it now takes to move from idea to income can be measured in days, sometimes even hours.

But what if eCommerce isn’t how you transact business? What if your business is service based?

You can still advertise online and via more traditional channels, launch fancy marketing campaigns, invest in telesales or TV ads or, shock horror, talk to people face-to-face.

Of all the ways we can market our businesses, especially in the B2B arena, talking to people about what we do (and what we can do for them) still ranks as the number one way to ensure a return on our investment and gain loyal customers. This isn’t cold calling, nor is it wandering up and down high streets wearing a sandwich board. In fact, it’s dead easy. Just join a business networking group where, as an added bonus, people will expect you to tell them what you do.

Where it all began

Today’s relaxed style of networking very likely owes its existence to Dr Ivan Misner and his visionary creation of BNI (Business Network International), launched in 1985. For those of you not familiar with BNI, it’s a global phenomenon with, at the time of writing, nearly 300,000 members belonging to 11,000 chapters in 75 countries, where members have generated more than $18 billion in referred business value.

Since day one, Dr. Misner has committed to a concept that remains the core principle of BNI nearly forty years later and is also a universal, irrefutable principle of humanity. In a modern-day tip of the hat to the biblical reference, “As you sow, so shall you reap”, BNI is founded on the principle of “Givers Gain”; a philosophy based on the law of reciprocity.

“Those that win in networking give first, give generously, and give often.”

In 2010, Greater Good Magazine wrote that the US National Institutes of Health found that when people give to others, “it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect. Scientists also believe that altruistic behaviour releases endorphins in the brain, producing a positive feeling known as the helper’s high.

However, despite BNI’s global success, not everyone is a fan of the format or the rules.

Consequently, the very human instinct for taking something that exists, pulling it apart and creating a shiny, new version under a different name has spawned countless variations of business networking groups, resulting in format, style, commitment and membership options to suit everyone.

And if that’s all a bit confusing and you’re not entirely sure what business networking is, how to do it or how to get better at it, you’re in luck. There are literally thousands of books on the subject, from Croissants vs Bagels to The Introvert’s Edge, and Networking Principles That Will Change Your Life, to The Jelly Effect – a catalogue so huge it would put some libraries to shame. And the man many consider to be the father of business networking, Mr BNI himself, published thirty-three books between 1993 and 2019, equating to roughly one book every nine months.

You may wonder how there can possibly be so much to say about something so intrinsically simple as turning up, saying hello and telling people what you do. After all, business networking is that simple. Well, perhaps that is oversimplifying it a little, and therein lies the reason such variety exists in the format of networking meetings as people try continually to reinvent them.

What exactly is business networking?

The definition of networking in the context of business depends who you talk to.

For some, it’s as clear as day the way to build a prospect list and find new customers. For some, it’s a way to build relationships with people who may know others who could need your products or services. For some it’s a way to meet people they might be able to help, and for others it’s a way to stay sane by getting out of their home office and/or having grown-up conversations.

Fundamentally, the basis of business networking is about building relationships. That’s it. But that doesn’t make it particularly easy. And for new or young business owners who need to keep bringing in new customers to build their business, working on relationships is a bit of a slog when deep down they really just want people to buy their stuff. Nobody dare question the irrefutable truth that relationships are fundamental to building trust, loyalty and longevity, yet for many it’s the one thing that keeps getting in the way of telling people what they do and asking if they’ll be a customer.

“Too many individuals network with the purpose of accomplishing an immediate goal. That’s not networking, that’s selling.”

Some people also see relationship-building as a bit tree-huggy and too slow-burn, but taking the time to build relationships means people get to know, like and trust you before doing business with you, and it’s the ‘before’ that’s key here. It’s what golf-playing business people have been doing for the past hundred years and with enormous success (building relationships, not hugging trees). It seemed obvious to golfers to get to know people through the pursuit of a common interest that would naturally build relationships. Business deals were then easily made, as were referrals to other golfers for their business services.

Not everyone plays golf, but the concept of relationship building and referring people you know, like and trust, is solid, and we tend to do this quite naturally anyway with our friends and family.

The expression, “It’s not what you know, but who you that matters most” is variously attributed to Confucius, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Buddha, but it could easily have been anyone’s throwaway comment, and whoever said it first was spot on as it highlights and emphasises how important being connected to the right people can be – and that’s precisely what business networking will give you; connections.

Hunters vs. Farmers

The appetite for business networking ebbs and flows over time, but around 2010, networking in the UK was at its peak. Networking groups in a variety of formats were springing up everywhere, all competing for the commitment and loyalty of the all-important local business owner. In fact, so competitive was this drive that BNI ruled against its members joining or even attending other networking events by threatening to cancel their membership. Thankfully, BNI rescinded the rule fairly quickly as they realised that whilst the rule’s purpose was to forcibly (sorry, help) retain members, it drove many away.

The explosion in networking opportunities resulted in an increase in the number of people regularly attending multiple events, hell-bent on getting new business. They’re known internally as hunters and are not interested in relationship building, only in seeing what they can get from the meetings. They tend to hand out business cards like happy hour invitations and constantly talk about themselves and what they do – never asking questions of their victims.

In fairness to the hunters, this doesn’t make them bad people or mean their business offering isn’t potentially good. It just means their personal brand is working against them, and whilst the rest of us go about the business of relationship-building, hunters quickly run out of people to talk at and move on.

Farmers, on the other hand, have patience as they know they can’t plant a seed one day and find a fully grown plant the next. At networking meetings, the farmers ask questions, chat, smile, laugh, get to know people, and return time after time. They don’t work the room by continually moving around, butting into conversations and pushing business cards into people’s hands. They find interesting people to talk to and take time to get to know them.

“Networking is not about hunting. It is about farming. It’s about cultivating relationships. Don’t engage in ‘premature solicitation’. You’ll be a better networker if you remember that.”

Ivan Misner, founder of BNI

Politics, religion and COVID vaccines

There’s no question that business networking is a practical step in building almost any business, so you’d think attending events would be on every business owner’s agenda, yet it isn’t. You’d think business owners would be eager to get out there and start meeting new people, but they’re not. Why is that?

Business networking has a uniqueness about it that creates a clear divide amongst business owners, where some see turning up to networking events as an obvious and exciting way to grow their connections, whilst others would never set foot in one for a variety of reasons. Some people are nervous, some people find small talk difficult, some people are too busy, and for others, just like politics, religion and COVID vaccines, they don’t believe in them or don’t hold a strong enough opinion either way.

While BNI transformed the world of business networking (some might say even invented it), it also fiercely divides opinion because its structured approach requires a very different mindset compared to most other more relaxed, open networking meetings. Speak to anyone at a typical meet-and-greet type business networking event, and many will tell you that BNI is not for them because they can’t do the early mornings, they felt pressured to give referrals, or it was too expensive.

However, none of the above is a true barrier to attending BNI meetings (unless you have to do the school run, of course) because this is just about where, and in what, you personally see value – and value is a very individual concept. Ok, so yes, BNI chapters conform to a fairly strict format that requires a significant investment in the form of membership fees, a non-negotiable attendance at weekly meetings (typically at the crack of dawn), and a measurable commitment to referring potential clients to members, but why is any of that a bad thing? Being asked to commit to a group and give regular referrals is a 100% two-way street, isn’t it? If you’re good at what you do in your business, members will refer people to you too.

According to recent research carried out by GreatBusinessSchools, the key reasons professional business people prefer in-person networking meetings are;

BNI and the spin-off groups who follow the same principle have one thing in common; exclusivity. This means that each member of a BNI chapter is the only one representing their business sector within that chapter. One accountant, one website developer, one solicitor, and so on. Chapters cover a pre-defined geographic area.

The exclusive categories concept doesn’t suit everyone. Competition is healthy and can be highly motivating – just look at your average high street. And whilst that style of networking doesn’t suit my personal way of thinking now, when I launched my web-technology business in the early 2000s, BNI was like finding gold and was instrumental in helping to build what started as a one-man-band, and grew to be a successful, international agency.

“If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.”

Zig Ziglar

In stark contrast to BNI’s style of networking is the relaxed, open, event & venue-based networking such as that provided by Gatwick Diamond Business.

GDB, which has its roots as far back as 1953, has business members spread across a vast geographic area from Croydon (south of London) to Brighton (on the south coast). Members range from small, professional companies to hotels, car showrooms, airline services, banking and even a football stadium. Consequently, the variety in meeting locations and venues, which change every month across the region, not only adds to the enjoyment but facilitates meeting different people on every occasion. Where else would you have the opportunity to talk to people across such a wide range of sectors in a relaxed, but professional, non-pressured environment?

GDB also more actively engages with and supports its members than any other business network I’ve been to in eighteen years of networking. You feel part of an organisation of like-minded people with similar goals and a growth mindset.

Of course, some people will prefer having one venue to go to in their hometown, building relationships with the same group of people every week, and a meeting format that never changes. Others will relish the variety of venues and meeting styles and are happy to travel.

When do relationships become paying customers?

Meeting people at networking events is only the first part of the process. You may get the opportunity to speak to a handful of people, either in a group conversation or individually, but the encounter is likely to be relatively brief. You won’t necessarily know if there’s even a synergy, as everyone is typically very polite and chatty at first. It’s also rare to have a two-minute chat and immediately find a potential customer, but it can happen.

The process of getting to know the people you’ve met begins with what you do AFTER the meeting, and sadly that’s where so many fall down – even those who are farmers, not hunters. Following up with a ‘nice to meet you’ email, a LinkedIn invitation to connect (always with a personalised note), and the suggestion of a 1-2-1 either face-to-face or on Zoom, are all important. But it’s not one of these, it’s all of them, and it means the next time you meet that person, you’ll have a deeper connection.

It’s also important to be genuinely interested in the other person and find out what they need for their business. Who are the people you could be looking out for to introduce to your new connection?

“The true value of networking doesn’t come from how many people we can meet but rather how many people we can introduce to others.”

Simon Sinek

Fundamentally, we all go to business networking events in the hope we’ll make new connections which become customers. However, it’s not a marketplace, and it’s not like an eCommerce website where you set out your stall for people to buy your products – and that’s a primary differentiator. You don’t go to business networking events to sell products; you go to sell yourself (not literally, obviously) and to help others.

Your personal brand

The essence of a brand is how it makes us feel and think, and how it shapes what we say about it when it’s not there, we’re not using it, we’re not in it, wearing it, eating it, drinking it, travelling in it, etc.

Your personal brand is exactly the same – what you leave people with is really important. It’s how they think about you after they meet you, and what they say about you to others. Ultimately, it’s why they’ll do business with you time and time again, or not.

Of course, in normal everyday life, our brand is our personality. But when you run or represent a business, its impact runs deeper because the impression we create and the feeling we leave behind can mean the difference between engaging or losing a customer.

Think of the heavy hitters who impact our lives daily in one way or another; Elon Musk, Trump, Coco The Clown (I didn’t mean to put those two together), Cristiano Ronaldo, Putin, Boris Johnson, Coco the cl… (sorry), Lady Diana Spencer, Nick Griffin, Jeff Bezos, Will Smith, and so on. They each have the power to create an emotional response in us because we like or dislike, agree or disagree with, relate to or disassociate ourselves from each of them. They each have, or are, a brand that’s generally accepted, good or bad, and as we see in action in situations such as with Will Smith at the 2022 Oscars, it takes only a moment of rage, however it manifests itself, to damage your own brand.

If you haven’t realised it yet, the same rules apply to you, and significantly more so when you run a business. You create an emotional, sometimes physical, response in the people you come into contact with. It’s even possible to create a response in someone who doesn’t know you and has never met you just because of your reputation. That’s your brand at work, and if you’re in business, you need to pay close attention to it constantly. Think about that next time you’re overreacting to something you fiercely disagree with – in public.

But remember, it’s still not all about you. How your brand develops will be determined by how you engage with others, what you like, share, re-tweet (re ‘X’?) or comment on, the people you include in your groups or tag in pictures, the people you connect with, the people you support and promote. Of course, you have the right to respond however you choose, but responding to a social media that many would consider inflammatory and doing so in an aggressive way because you strongly disagree or feel offended, may show you in a different light. Think before you type…. will this help my personal brand to work for me or against me?

How to be a good networker

Being present at networking meetings is a pretty good way to begin being a good networker, but it’s about way more than that.

You will invest time, money and effort to be at a networking event, and so will everyone else who’s there, and they will each have an expectation of you, to be able to explain what you do. And they’ll expect you to be able to tell them; clearly, succinctly, and in a way that keeps them engaged in the conversation.

The question is more challenging than it first seems. And when you dig deep into what you really do, what you come up with can be quite surprising. There’s an entire article devoted to this one question, called Are You Selling What Your Customers Are Buying?  which you may find interesting.

A quick caveat is that not everyone asks you what to do because they’re genuinely interested. For some, and it’s usually the hunters mentioned previously, they ask because they know you’ll soon get around to asking them what they do.

So how do you know how to respond?

Many people will have heard about the sixty-second pitch, or ‘elevator pitch’, where you’re expected to be able to encapsulate what you do within sixty seconds. But this is not simply cramming words into sixty seconds as it needs to be structured, and here’s a good formula you can try for yourself.

Pitching is not well tolerated at modern networking events, as it suggests more of a hard sell in a competitive environment, but I’m using the word ‘pitch’ here to describe the soft, flowing, conversational sentence that you carefully craft to explain what you do.

The structure I’m referring to is four key steps that will work in every situation, from a thirty-second ‘pitch’ to a two-hour presentation. And a good tip for remembering your ‘pitch’ is to remember the steps, and the rest will flow easily. The four steps are Clarity. Credibility. Problem. Solution. And if you want to add two more steps to round it off, think about what you’re known for, and how you leave people feeling. This works less well when spoken, but be very powerful when written.

Tips for making a success of business networking:

Networking takes effort, so don’t be put off if you’re new to it and find your first meeting difficult.

Remember that some people will help you if you’re looking a little lost, but it’s mainly up to you to get involved, and if you’re thinking about how to be confident and talk to people you don’t yet know, just act it out. Don’t overthink it, just pretend you’re cool, calm, confident and collected, and act the part. You’ll be surprised how effective that can be until it comes naturally to you.

  • Be there and be there on a regular basis.
  • Be professional in your appearance and your manner. You don’t need to be suited and booted (unless you prefer to dress that way); just smart casual is usually fine, and if you’re not sure, ask.
  • Actively engage in conversation with people you don’t know. Don’t only gravitate to those you already know. It’s great to catch up, but you can do that in your own time.
  • If you’re already confident and at ease, seek out people who look lost or uncomfortable. They’ll really appreciate the support, and it’s a great conversation starter.
  • Don’t work the room – it’s not a competition to see how many people you can speak to, or how many business cards you can collect. If you have just one meaningful conversation at a meeting, that’s a good day.
  • Take business cards with you (and remember that a business card is as much a part of your brand as anything else because it’s the only physical thing they’ll have to remember you by), but try not to hand them out unless you’re asked for one.
  • Have a conversational pitch prepared in a way that you can naturally and easily answer the question, “What do you do?” without launching into a sales pitch. A clever, easy way to respond is to explain a situation where what you did was enormously helpful, and a great way to construct this ‘story’ is to go back to Clarity, Credibility, Problem, Solution. The following is a slightly long-winded example that would need whittling down to be conversational, but it illustrates the elements you’ll need to think about:
    • (CLARITY): You know how some companies actively engage in marketing and have all sorts of content out there across multiple channels?
      (CREDIBILITY): Well, I have 25 years of experience in helping companies to develop clarity and the right messaging to create highly effective marketing campaigns.
    • (PROBLEM): Typically, after marketing for a few years, companies lose track of what’s out there, where it is, or worse still, what it says about them.
    • (SOLUTION): I undertake a thorough audit across all channels, online and offline, internal and external, and prepare a report of what’s working and what isn’t, together with an achievable action to get it back on track.
    • (WHAT I AM KNOWN FOR): I recently worked with a company whose marketing was unstructured and incoherent, and in four and a half years, I brought in £5m in marketing-generated revenue.
    • (HOW I LEAVE PEOPLE FEELING): My clients learn how to create effective marketing campaigns and feel empowered to stay in control and on top of every aspect of their marketing.
  • Be interesting and interested in equal measure. That means asking questions as well as answering them. Try not to always say, “So what do you do?”. If you see they’re in printing (look at people’s badges), ask what type of printing they do, or what type of customers buy their printing services.
  • Don’t ‘sell’ directly to people; educate them to tell others about you, and that comes more easily when you tell stories about what you do for others.
  • Think about helping others, not always yourself. Ask what you need to listen out for to be able to refer people to them. People are genuinely flattered by this approach and will be keen to respond (even though they haven’t often considered it themselves!), but if you’re going to ask – pay attention to the answer. You’ll be a hero (or heroine) the day you refer somebody to them, as it seems like a selfless thing to do.
  • Follow up. Follow up. Follow up. Relationship building doesn’t stop when you leave the meeting. Send an email to them saying how nice it was to meet them. Connect on LinkedIn, and arrange a Zoom 1-2-1 or a coffee meeting to get to know them better.

And above all, have fun, enjoy each and every opportunity to meet new people, build new relationships and grow your business.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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