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Branching out

When I started out in business, I spent one Sunday afternoon at the family dinner table debating whether or not I should join an organization. I recall

Branching out

Feb 1, 1999 12:00 PM,
Ted Tate

When I started out in business, I spent one Sunday afternoon at the familydinner table debating whether or not I should join an organization. Irecall my mother saying that it is not always about what you know; it isoften who you know. She consequently suggested that I join. I did and tothis day do not regret having been more involved in business organizationsand making connections with other business people in my early years. Afterabout 10 years I got the message and started to get involved in variousnetworking activities. I soon learned where the opportunities were and whatwould amount to a waste of my time. I am going to share with you what myyears of networking taught me, not only the successes, but also the placesand situations that turned out to be losers. I will assume that sellingmore is your main motive for networking.

Where people networkNetworking opportunities exist all around us. The truth is, any place twoor more people gather can be an opportunity to network. The only way toknow, however, is to have specific goals in mind. Otherwise, you will wastetime networking in the wrong places and failing to network in the rightones. Examples of places or situations suitable to networking are:mentor/protege programs, alumni groups from school, former employee alumnigroups, coalitions, special-interest groups, political organizations, tradeassociations, professional associations, forums, power breakfasts andlunches, quality circles, retreats, training programs, conventions, tradeshows, networking organizations and sales leads clubs.

Without a specific goal for networking, your results will be disappointing.You first must know what you are seeking before you can find it. Althoughthis is designed to assist you with the first goal, finding new business,you may have other valid reasons to network, now or in the future. Somecommon goals networking can help you achieve are locating new business,making professional contacts, changing jobs in the near future, changingcareer, making friends, making others aware of your skills and expertise,and increasing knowledge of your field or other area of interest.

Inappropriate networkingNetworking, highly misunderstood by many people, is frequently misused. Agreat many networking attempts are usually doomed to failure because theindividual treats it as if he were making a sales call. A favorite exampleof mine is people who are in some kind of multi-level marketing pyramid.They learn quickly that most people avoid these scams, so to get someoneinterested, they grossly exaggerate or outright lie. After all, theyinvested in the thing so now they have to find some other people to investor not get their money back. They may not believe that they are lying; theymay see it as creative selling.

I have had former friends of mine con me into attending some half-bakedpyramid scheme meeting. Not only did I drive 45 minutes to get there, but Ialso sat through two hours of meaningless rhetoric before it becameapparent I was expected to invest $5,000 so that I could change my life.You will meet such people when networking, especially at events billed asnetworking mixers. At most of those events, you will find that everyonethere is trying to sell something to each other. All salespeople, noprospects. Here are some common networking behaviors that many people findoffensive: collecting business cards without connecting with the people,obsessing over quantity instead of quality, intruding inappropriately onpeople, conducting short, superficial interaction, focusing exclusively onyour agenda without listening to the other person to gather information,and trying to sell on the spot, even to someone you do not know. Somepeople often make the mistake of either constantly looking around the roomfor more opportunities while speaking to someone or even being overlyassertive and rude at times.

It is important to understand what networking does not involve. You shouldnever sell to people you meet on the spot or use people strictly for yourgain. Avoid badgering people about your business and putting associates,friends or neighbors on the spot. Never manipulate or coerce people to dowhat you want. In fact, do not exhibit any behavior that may be construedas manipulative or coercive.

Networking, especially for salespeople, can be essential to success. It canhelp you find excellent prospects to whom you can sell in the future. Youmay find that you can make new friends who can refer you new business. Youcan also meet potential future prospects socially that you could never getto on a cold sales call. In the end, you may even develop a reputationamong prospects as an expert in your field. Some of the best places to dothis are trade and professional associations your best prospects join,trade shows attended by your best prospects, and any organization meetingor any function where a number of potential prospects will be.

A room full of strangersTrue networking means joining organizations where your best potentialcontacts are members and socializing, developing business contacts as wellas friendships over a period of time. At the other end of that spectrum arenetworking events or mixers sponsored by such various organizations aschambers of commerce. Frequently, most of the people there are also tryingto sell. This kind of networking can actually produce business for somesalespeople, but only if they know how to make contact and qualify peoplequickly. I will show you how to make the most contacts and somewhat qualifythem for future follow-up. As in all other kinds of selling, it is anumbers game.

There are many reasons as to why a given networking attempt may fail. Whennetworking, you must know what you expect and clearly verbalize it toothers. People are not mind readers. State your needs in one or twosentences that people can understand. Never ask anyone if they knowsomebody who wants to buy something. No one does. Instead, ask forcharacteristics that make a good prospect. When I sold security systems,crime victims and businesses moving were good prospects. I trained mysalespeople to ask about people who had a recent burglary or fire and whomight be moving. In those terms, people could quickly identify what we werelooking for.

Second, some find networking unrewarding because of selfish behavior. Theysee networking as a way to get something for nothing. They only talk longenough to see what they can get. They tend to be aggressive and abrasive,with little interest in helping others. To succeed, networking must bemutually beneficial with both parties seeing the rewards. Because nothingin life is equal, you may give assistance to people who are unable to helpyou. Other times, people will help you, and you cannot return the favor.Sometimes, the results come much later. Rest assured, it evens out.Networking success comes with a win-win attitude.

The third problem, shyness, involves a difficulty in talking to strangers.I see people go to networking events with a friend, spending the timewalking around, talking to the friend and looking at the surroundings.Later, they complain about the unproductive networking event. Successfulnetworking requires a determination to meet as many new people as possible.

Fortunately, there are proven networking strategies that can help. At largeevents where you know few if any attendees, go alone, or if with someone,split up until the event ends. Smile when you walk in the door and do notstop until you leave. Count out 20 business cards for a large event, andpromise yourself not to leave until you give them all away. Pin a namebadge made up with your name and company name to your right lapel; it willbe easy to read when you shake hands.

As you walk around, make eye contact with everybody. The minute you get areturn eye contact, smiling, extend your hand and introduce yourself alongwith the nature of your business stated as a benefit. By simply stating howyou benefit people instead of what your line of work is, the dull andboring becomes interesting, even exciting. A great conversation starter,especially if you tend to be a little shy.

Spend less than 10 minutes with any one person. Collect business cards andmake notes. You can and should follow up with a phone call. When I wasselling, I would consider it a success if I gave out 20 cards and found oneor two good prospects. One thing for sure, I would be a lot poorer today inmoney, customers and friends if I had not made it a habit to attend andnetwork these events.

Networking in organizationsNetworking is something you should be aware of wherever you go. Shopping,parties, family gatherings and meeting new people are among dozens of wayswe all can come in contact with potential opportunities. Having said that,let me tell you from years of hard experience that networking is not adependable source of opportunity unless you know how to maximize yourefforts. The trick to getting a good return on your networking skills isplacing yourself in the right surroundings.

I am a firm believer in salespeople joining their own trade associations intheir industry. For new business, however, join a business organizationother than your own trade association. There is no one at your ownorganization to impress but your competitors. Join an organization thatpotential new customers (or business contacts) might come from. A chamberof commerce is one. A trade association for your customers can beexcellent. Many allow people outside the trade to join as associatemembers. There is an old saying, “People like to do business with peoplethey know.”

Joining alone is worthless; do not join anything unless you can attendregularly. Then, get involved. In organizations, 90% of members pay duesand come to events. That is it. Volunteer for something. By taking sometime to get involved you will become known. Follow through, and do a goodjob at whatever it may be. Otherwise, instead of gaining credibility, youwill look insincere. Over a period of time, people will see you as adependable person who gets things done. You will be respected for it. Ifyou do this in an organization of potential customers or contacts,opportunities you would never find otherwise will come your way.

Also, you might want to use what I call “finders,” people who may logicallycome in contact with your potential clients. When I was president of acentral station alarm company, I instructed my sales staff to contact everylocksmith, window glazier and insurance agent in his or her territorybecause when a burglary or fire occurred, these people knew about it andwere in a position to recommend us or give the salesperson the name. We, ofcourse, reciprocated.

Another source is networking clubs or groups. Regularly read the meetingcalendar listings in local business magazines and business newspapers aswell as the business pages of the daily newspapers. You will see businessand professional groups listed with meetings open to the public. You willhave to attend any group once to explore what networking possibilitiesexist. Some are excellent for networking; others have limited memberships,and after attending a few meetings, you will have exhausted allpossibilities. Join no organization until attending preferably two meetingsto see if the organization lives up to expectations.

In evaluating organizations you may want to join, there are some points toconsider. Be certain these are the people you need to meet. If not,determine if their daily routine, career or background puts them in contactwith the people you need to meet. Find out if the members are successful tosome extent and if they have a win-win attitude, a true atmosphere ofsharing and friendship. Note whether the prevailing attitude is positive ornegative. Are the members eager to share new ideas, or are they tiredpeople just looking for a place to make idle chatter as they rest theirfeet? Never forget, losers hang out with losers, winners with winners. Gowhere there is success, or simply do not go in the first place.

Lastly, there are sales lead clubs. Different from networking groupsbecause these clubs meet for only one thing-to exchange sales leads amongits membership, which consists of mostly salespeople and owners of smallbusinesses who sell. There are numerous informal groups to explore withlittle or no dues. The best way to find them is networking with othersalespeople.

If a good organization is not available in your area, try founding oneyourself. Instead of shelling out money for dues, substitute a little timeand effort. You will need to find a free or low-cost meeting space. Whenasking for meeting space, be sure to point out you are a non-profit,relatively small organization from the community, and you need the spaceonly once a week in the early morning hours when many meeting rooms areunused. See if any of your members work for companies who will donate aconference room or other space. Check with churches, synagogues, libraries,community centers and city halls to see if they will donate a space or canrefer you to someone who may. Many restaurants, hotels and motels haveparty rooms and will allow you to meet for free or a nominal fee becausesome people will order food.

To find members, call companies who are likely to employ salespeople andask the sales manager to let his salespeople know of your organization.Post bulletin board notices in community centers and libraries. Send anotice to business newspapers who publish these meeting notices. Getreferrals from any business people you call on and from other salespeopleyou may meet.

To keep meetings running smoothly, meet early in the morning so you do nottake from people’s selling time. You will find the more successful thesalesperson, the more preoccupied about not wasting valuable selling timethey are. Understand that the kind of people who are the most desirablemembers are successful people with lots of contacts. These people will notreturn if the meeting does not run in a businesslike manner. Decide on aspecific time to start and end each meeting and a regular day each week.Stick to them like glue. Structure meetings so that everybody has a chanceto speak for a few minutes to describe what they do and what kind ofprospects they are looking for. Have predetermined time limits for peopleto speak, and make sure everybody knows in advance. If people speak toolong, do not be shy about reminding them of the time limit. Never allow oneperson or group of people to dominate the meetings, or you will not be ableto keep members. Have predetermined rules about subject matter. Keep themeeting focused on the purpose only and always in a positive tone. Neverallow it to become a general bull session or worse, gripe session;otherwise, you will lose members. You may want to have some kind of dues tocover any mailings or printing of notices. Keep it minor. Limit membershipto one person from each kind of business. Never allow someone’s competitorto join for any reason. Decide in advance how many leads people must bringto each meeting. Occasionally, even the best lead-getters will run dry, andthat is all right. Once in a while, however, people will join who takeleads but never return any or give poor leads instead. Have rules designedto get rid of freeloaders who do not contribute decent leads regularly. Ifyou agree from the beginning and put these rules in writing, it is mucheasier to get rid of the chiselers. Again, if you do not do this, you willlose your better members. Whoever runs the meetings must enforce theserules to keep running smoothly and maintain a strong membership.

As with anything else, the rewards of networking are proportional to thequantity and the quality of the energy invested in its development. Usethese techniques properly, and sales performance cannot help but benefit.Implement them poorly, however, and you will be wasting your time. Goodluck and good selling.

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