Thursday, April 3, 2014

Making the Most of Business After Hours Networking

They say that in business, it's not what you know, it's who you know. Some people use that axiom as an excuse for failure, but I simply see it as a fact of business. If who you know is very important, and you don't know the right people, what do you do about it? Meet the right people!

One of the best ways to start making connections is an open networking event. Most chambers of commerce run something similar. Some call it "Business After Hours" others call it "After 5". Whatever it is called, the structure is the same. A member organization looking to show off what they do hosts the event, which runs every month or so at different venues. There is generally food and drink provided, and a whole bunch of people show up and put on name tags.

The after hours networking event.
Valuable opportunity or terrifying
chore, depending on your
This can be one of the most valuable and rewarding or terrifying and stultifying events you will encounter depending on how you approach it.

The first thing to do before you even show up is to prepare. Be sure that your look is the look that you want the business community to know you by. If you are a creative type who always wears jeans and a polo, and that's how you want people to know you, you can wear that. If you want to appeal to the professionals and bankers and lawyers, you'll want a suit, or at least a nice button down shirt. Whatever look you are going for, make sure it is neat. Tousled hair, 3 days beard growth, and ratty sneakers will not give anyone confidence in your business.

If you have business cards, make sure to bring them. If you don't, get them printed. They're cheap, and they are a very good way to start the conversation.

Finally, figure out what your goal is in attending the function. Are you looking for clients? Are you looking for networking partners who can help introduce you to clients? Are you looking for other people in your industry with whom you can share ideas? Are you looking to enjoy the company of other business people because it's a nice change from the office? Depending on what your goal is, you will want to adopt a different approach to the event.

If you are lucky, you have a friend to introduce you around. Most chambers have "ambassadors" who introduce new people around. If you have someone like that to guide you, then you are in good shape, assuming that your guide can introduce you to the people you are looking to meet.

If there is a specific individual you are looking to meet or someone from a specific company, ask a member of the host chamber if they could introduce you. It is much easier to get an introduction to a specific person than an introduction to some people.

The experience of a new person without a guide is often the same: you walk in, possibly knowing one or two people. Maybe knowing no one at all. Everyone seems to know each other. They are all standing in little knots of twos and threes and none of them seem particularly interested in talking to you. Some people, at this point, will start to think of the group as cliquish, and write it off as just a bunch of old buddies getting together, making it hard to meet anyone. Resist that temptation.

Of course, they are not particularly interested in talking to you. They don't know who you are, what you do, or what you have to offer. It's your job to create interest. (You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?) If you have someone to introduce you, the introduction can create the interest. If you are on your own, however, it's up to you. So, how do you meet people at an event where everyone seems to be engaged in conversation?

While the food is often phenomenal,
you came here to build your business,
not feed your face.
Everyone at a networking event is wearing a nametag, and most of them are there to network and meet new people. Most of them are also just as shy about walking up to new people as you are. The difference is that they know people there, so, where your alternative to meeting new people is holding up a wall, their alternative to meeting new people is talking to the ones they already know.

Now, that you understand that most of the people there actually are open to meeting you, let's meet some people. Find a clot of people who are of interest to you. Perhaps the business indicated on their nametag tells you that they would be someone good to meet. Perhaps they are the group standing closest to you. It doesn't matter, you will meet lots of people in the next two hours.

Approach the group, and observe their body language. Most people at these events are engaged in casual conversation, but some might be trying to conduct some sort of business or at least formally introduce themselves in preparing for future business relations. If that seems to be what is going on, then you might want to move on to the next group. You are less likely to make a good impression if you interrupt what was developing into a valuable opportunity for those you are interrupting.

A glass of wine might help you relax
and be more open to approaching
people, but remember you are here
for business. Stay sharp, not
I discussed cliquishness earlier. That happens between people who have known each other a long time. If people know each other, they won't be talking serious business at their after hours event. They'll be chatting about golf and that thing that happened last year and kids and wives and cars. In other words, the clique standing around talking might be more open to being interrupted because they are more likely to be shooting the breeze, while the newer members, just meeting people and feeling out opportunities, may be harder to break into a conversation with.

So, let's say that you are approaching a group, and you find a break in the conversation. Often, a member of the group will notice you standing there, and draw you into the conversation. Since the only thing they really know about you is what's on your name tag, they will often start there. "So, Michael, what's Concardia?" I am often asked by way of introduction. Have your business card ready to hand to them as you explain what you do.

This is what the "elevator speech" is for. Be prepared to explain your business in 30 seconds or less. One or two sentences is better if you can do it, especially if they are crafted to elicit the response of "oh, really, that's interesting. Tell me more." You'll know you are doing it well if your business becomes the seed of the next conversation more often than not. After a polite amount of discussion of what you do and what you are looking for, turn it around and ask them what they do.

If no one starts the conversation, and if no obvious segue comes up to enter the conversation, wait for a lull in their talk and use the networking pick up line I described above. "So, Susan, what is Phillipson Associates?"  or "So, Robert, what do you do with Liberty Mutual?" There are few things wrapped up in this introduction. You are saying:

  • "I am interested in you and what you do."
  • "I am giving you the floor of this conversation for a moment to talk about yourself."
  • "Please tell me what you are looking for so I can see if I can help you with it."
  • "When you are done talking about you, I hope you will reciprocate with the opportunity to talk about me"
Your mission at these events is not to make sales. It is not even necessarily to make appointments to meet later. You have a very short 90-120 minutes to meet as many people as you can. During your time with each person you meet, your job is to arouse interest and get their card so that you can follow up and arrange an appointment to meet later. We'll talk about networking appointments in a future article.

If you approach an open networking event well prepared and equipped with a goal, you will come into a room seeing dozens of potential business contacts with whom you will have valuable, long lasting relationships. If you come in ill-prepared and unplanned, you will see a noisy, crowded room full of unfriendly strangers.

I attend the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours events regularly. If you are in Eastern Connecticut and would like some introductions, drop me a line. I'll be happy to help!

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