Sales and Sales Management Blog

July 21, 2008

Netting a Return on Networking

Networking.  For many, if not most, salespeople and managers that word evokes images of the Chamber of Commerce networking nights, the breakfast lead exchange groups, and pestering mom, dad, the black sheep uncle, and anyone else that might be able to cough up lead.

That word may also conjure up memories-maybe really recent memories from like, yesterday-of wasted time, a room full of no real prospects, dad’s agonized tone of voice that belies his smile and can’t hide his unease with the request to give a referral to his friends and acquaintances.

Although there are many good books on networking, many salespeople are still spending a good deal of time and effort seeking to network in the wrong places, with the wrong people, and with the wrong goals.  They view networking as a grazing activity, seeking out venues where they can find a sizable group of men and women, and spit out their ‘value proposition’ to as many of them as possible in as little time as possible.  Favorite haunts tend to be the local chamber of commerce; the networking events of various local business associations and groups; lead exchange breakfast groups; and the proverbial family and friends.

Not surprisingly, few salespeople who approach networking in this manner find their time and effort to be well spent.  Grazing for contacts and leads generally doesn’t work because it violates some key aspects of business and human nature.

Location, location, location.  The old real estate adage applies to networking as well.  Where you network is of prime importance.

Although easy, floating into the chamber networking event isn’t likely to produce results.  In most instances, these events are overwhelmingly dominated by other salespeople who are also looking for the opportunity to meet new prospects–and who are not the least bit interested in being sold to.  Instead of finding yourself in a room of 125 prospects, it is far more likely to find yourself in a room of 100 salespeople and 25 business owners and managers-of which only a very small handful would be quality prospects for you.  Certainly you can meet prospects.  And certainly there are sales made from the contacts developed at chamber meetings.  But the return on time and energy investment is usually extremely small.

Lead exchange groups can be very viable opportunities for those selling the right products and services.  A mechanic or quick print company might find a lead exchange group to be an extremely valuable source of new business.  On the other hand, a salesperson selling enterprise solutions or a management recruiter would more than likely find little if any success in one of these groups.  Nevertheless, I’ve know management consultants, copyright attorneys, and financial services salespeople who sell money management services with a minimum portfolio size of a million dollars who invested their time and energy in these groups before they discovered it was a poor match for their services.

This is not to say that networking through groups can’t be worthwhile.  It can.  You just have to spend your time and energy in the right places.  Where are the right places?  That, of course, depends on what you sell, but whatever you sell, the right place is where you’ll find a large number of legitimate prospects and that tends to be in specialized organizations and associations.

If you sell high end printing equipment, you want to spend your time where prospects who purchase high-end printing equipment gather-say the local associations for architects, manufacturers, or design companies.  If you sell financial services, you would spend you time where there are likely a number of wealthy prospects.  You want to be where your prospects are, it’s that simple.

Networking general business groups tends to be low return; networking specialized groups where your prospects gather tends to be high return.  Although this is common sense, it goes against the grain of what most salespeople do.

Human Nature: Networking events are usually a terrible time to try to market yourself because you’re going against the grain of the objectives of most of the participants.  There will certainly be a few participants at these events whose only objective is to meet new people or to mingle with friends, but most are there for one reason-to find and connect with prospects.  And how do they intend to do that?  By spending their time talking about themselves.

Probably more than 80% of the contacts you make at a typical networking event have little interest in hearing your story because that’s not what they are there for.  They are there to get their story out.  Their networking methodology is to float from person to person until they find a live target and then to try to wow them with their value proposition and set an appointment.  This is hardly an atmosphere conducive to finding and connecting with quality prospects.

Even if you invest your time in organizations and associations that are full of your prime prospects you can’t go with the intent of collaring prospects and spewing forth your value proposition, your product’s benefits, and how great you are.  Networking is a process, not a one-time event.  Networking is about developing relationships, not grazing for low hanging fruit.

To successfully network takes time, commitment, and a sincere desire to get to know-and help-people.   Networking isn’t a short-term sales generator; rather it is a long-term business builder.

Networking in an organization or association requires a commitment on your part to the organization.  Thinking you can just show up at a networking event and have an impact is going to be disappointing.  But becoming involved-becoming a part of the group can generate a great deal of sustained business because it caters to the way human beings think and how they respond to others.

Humans have a tendency to view their own problems as somewhat unique.  Intellectually they recognize the universality of their own issues, but emotionally they view their problems as distinctly their own.  This tendency to view problems as unique can be one of the most powerful opportunities a salesperson can take advantage of.

Although few problems a trucking company encounters are truly unique to the trucking industry, most decision makers in trucking companies view their industry’s issues as unique to the trucking industry.  Likewise, most decision makers in the printing business view their issues as unique to the printing industry.  This isn’t to say that the issue per se is unique but that the particulars of the issue are industry unique.  If the particulars are unique, then the solution is undoubtedly somewhat unique also.  If the particulars and the solution is unique, then it is natural that the decision maker wants to work with someone who really ‘understands’ their issues.

That ‘understanding’ is where your opportunity comes in play.

By joining and becoming a part of their industry’s association, you become one of the team-in other words, you’re perceived to really ‘understand’ the ‘uniqueness’ of their problems and issues and consequently you understand the solutions they need.  People want to work with people they believe recognize and understand the uniqueness of their needs, issues and problems, not someone who treats every business and every situation in the same manner with a canned ‘solution.’  The heart specialist can charge more and is more highly respected than the family generalist because she has a unique understanding of the issues and solutions of the patient.  When seeking a divorce, most people seek out a divorce lawyer rather than a generalist because they believe the specialist has knowledge and skills the generalist doesn’t.

By becoming a part of the team you put yourself in the position of an industry specialist-you ‘know’ and ‘understand,’ and that knowing and understanding sets you apart from your competitors.  You go to the top of the list when one of the members of the organization needs your services.  You become an expert, not a generalist.

The key to successfully networking within these organizations and associations is to become an actual part of the group.  You can’t just show up at networking events-if you do you’ll be viewed as nothing more than an opportunist.  You have get in and work with the group-volunteer for committee work, help on fundraisers, pay your dues-both in terms of money and sweat.

It’s About the Prospect, Not You: Networking is about relationships and relationships are built on mutual respect, understanding, and a sincere desire to know the other person.  To connect means to bond with the other person and bonding takes time.

Most people love to talk about themselves and they tend to naturally like and respect those people who allow them to do that.  Instead of spending your time talking about yourself and your value proposition, spending the vast majority of your initial meeting-even your initial two or three meetings-learning about the other person will pay great dividends in the long run.  Don’t rush to talk about your value proposition, your products or services, what you do for companies, or even your background.  Concentrate on getting to know the person in front of you-there will be plenty of time later to get to you and what you do.

When you let people talk you learn a great deal about them, about their likes, their history, their wants and needs, their hopes and dreams-and very quickly you learn whether or not they are viable prospects.  The more they talk, the more you learn.  The more you learn, the better opportunity you will have later to direct the conversation in directions that naturally lead to how you can serve them.

Most salespeople spend far too much time talking and far too little time listening.  This is especially so when networking.  Learn to keep you mouth shut and your ears open.  Allow your new acquaintance to lead the conversation by doing exactly what you want them to do-talk about themselves, their business, their needs.  If you remember, Peter Faulk as Columbo didn’t speak much, asked a great many questions, and always got what he wanted in the end because the suspect always ended up telling him what he needed to know-either directly or indirectly.  Turns out selling is similar-prospects always tell you what you need to know in the end if you can keep you mouth shut, ask lots of questions, and like Columbo, know how to listen.

Networking can generate a tremendous return on investment if done correctly.  By just going where your prospects go, understanding the natural tendency of humans to view their problems and issues as unique and becoming that uniquely qualified specialist who understand their issues and the solutions, and allowing your prospect to talk will open a lot more doors than trying to graze the low fruit at artificial networking events.


1 Comment »

  1. […] second post that I read is less about how to network and more about where to network. In his post, Netting a Return on Networking, Paul McCord suggests that rather than finding contacts at the traditional locations such as local […]

    Pingback by The Networking in Social Networking — July 25, 2008 @ 9:02 am | Reply

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