Stop “Networking” at Networking Events

Networking works pretty well if you’re trying to get hired. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% of jobs are landed through networking.

While that’s an impressive number, there is a huge difference between the potential employer to employee relationship, and making connections that will actually grow your business.

Two things I learned very quickly about networking as an entrepreneur:

  • It’s probably not going to go as well as you want it to.
  • The race to pass out business cards is a losing proposition every single time.

One thing I learned much further down the line about networking, which proved to be the “difference that made the difference”:

Stop “Networking” at Networking Events

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Well it’s true. I cofounded Vicky Virtual just a few, short, crazy months before the writing of this post, and to date, we haven’t spent a dime on traditional paid marketing, and a full 30% or more of our clients can be attributed directly to making connections with people in a meaningful way.

Learning to meet people in a meaningful way as opposed to learning to network was a process for me, and that process is ongoing. It all started when I joined a company named Rentobo, and decided I was going to start attending a few networking events.

I had many problems which we’ll address throughout this post.

Problem #1: Trying to “meet” as many people as possible at each event.

I went to my first few events with a “target, lock, engage, sell” method. While a lot of business cards got handed out, I didn’t know who any of these people were when I got home, and I highly doubt they remembered me, save a few financial advisors that sent canned, lukewarm emails.

Stack of cards from one 3 hour networking event. I was not an effective networker.

More importantly, because I didn’t know much about most of the people that I met that night, it was hard to be able to follow up in a meaningful way later on.

Anyone that actually knows anything about networking events will tell you that it’s not the best idea to just introduce yourself and your business, ask maybe one additional follow up question, exchange cards and move on. The reasons should be obvious, but for many people, myself included, it just didn’t click.

Why? I, like many other entrepreneurs, am a salesman at heart. We are battle-tested and hardened by years of cold calls, cold emails and other low temperature interactions. Some of us that are a bit old school are not afraid to buckle down and play the numbers game, because when all else fails, you can brute force your way to success if you get in touch with enough people.

There is certainly a place for cold calls in many businesses, but low temp interactions are not great in person. I remember grabbing progressively larger stacks of my own business cards, and feeling proud of myself if they all got handed out. I had a system of placing my cards in one side of my blazer, with the stack of cards I received in the other pocket. I could barely keep organized which card was which, let alone remember anything meaningful about the persons that handed them to me.

Ridiculous.

As you can imagine, these countless “cold calls in person” resulted in very few meaningful relationships, and certainly didn’t translate to any clients.

Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to learn from my mistakes, and I now refuse to take more than 15 business cards with me.

Takeaway #1: Quality over quantity.

A smart business associate of mine once told me that I needed to have a plan going into each event. The problem was that he didn’t expand on that thought, and I didn’t ask. I just thought, well I have a plan, and that’s to find the right someone to sell my services to.

Problem #2: Talking to people for a while, but only thinking about them as prospects.

The second step of going from networking to meeting people in a meaningful way was forgetting about what someone could do for me, and getting to know them, and how I could help them instead.

I had a long conversation with someone that was a true LinkedIn networking “lion.” She had a lot of networking event experience, and had one of those LinkedIn accounts with 3–4000 “connections.” You know the type. However, she didn’t have the problem of rapid fire business card exchanges; she would only spend more than 30 seconds talking to someone if she knew they would eventually buy from her.

So when this lady, let’s call her “Melissa,” would meet a new person, they were essentially treated as a prospect.

Melissa’s approach was simple. Meet a person at an event. Person isn’t a potential sale? On to the next, and the next, and the next. When Melissa finally did talk to someone who she could work with, she would talk to them for a good amount of time, maybe even 20 minutes straight, exchange info, and go into a bit of a sales pitch right then and there.

Now, some of you may not think this is a big deal, considering Melissa had already targeted someone that actually could use her product. Melissa sure didn’t. She didn’t really consider what was wrong up until I uttered a really simple statement.

“People generally don’t care about what you have to offer unless you have already given them what they want.”

Melissa understandably assumed that since her “prospect” was a good fit for her offering, all she had to do was offer it and there was no good reason why they shouldn’t want to accept it. She did get the occasional client from this, but she and I both knew something was lacking.

I told Melissa to make one simple change: go ahead and find people that you think would be a good fit for your product, but only talk about it minimally, and ONLY when the person asks about it first.

Here’s what she had to say about how that worked out:

Seems like it helped!

Pretty strong results from a very simple change in behavior, yet most people don’t do it.

Takeaway #2: Don’t treat people like prospects, even when they’re a good fit for your business.

So let’s go back to what I told Melissa. Again, people aren’t all that interested in giving you money unless you give them tremendous value. Really, you need to give them more value than you ever take from them. Maybe you invented that one thing which people want, yet no one else offers. If that’s the case, the product sells itself. But, if that’s not the case, you will do a better job if people buy into you before they buy into your product.

Again, understanding this concept is what led to the difference that made a difference for me. People aren’t stupid, so it’s pointless and unnecessary to make a fuss about things you have zero interest in.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I finally realized that the entire concept of networking is centered around a terrible mindset for creating loyal followers of your brand and business.

In fact, let’s take a look at what Google says is the definition of networking.

Notice it says “especially to further one’s career.”

Notice at the end it says, “especially to further one’s career.” Of course, you need to put yourself out there if you ever want to win any business, but the mindset behind that Google definition really fits an employee/employer relationship far better.

As an entrepreneur, we must do things differently.

Instead of ‘developing contacts to further one’s career,’ we must attempt to meet people and develop a relationship with them in a meaningful way. Give first, and give more than you take. In that vein, the best approach to networking is to create genuine friendships with people.

So simple, isn’t it?

So what do you do when you have a friend? You share things of interest that may benefit them. You introduce them to other people that may have a positive impact on their life or business. You go out and have a beer without speaking a word about business (unless of course, you’re like me, and it’s pretty much all you talk about!) People want to buy from their friends, and true friends are as loyal as it gets.

So, this realization really freed me up when it came time to go to other networking friendship-building events. I now look for other business owners like myself, seek to have a great conversation and learn more about them (instead of just talking about myself), and exchange contact information at the end, with plans to stay in touch later.

I’ve collaborated on many projects with these people, and most of what made Vicky Virtual survive her first (and most crucial) month was the help of our friends who happened to have businesses that were a good fit for our offering.

Anyone will tell you that 100 friendly clients is better than 200 clients that don’t care about you or your business, so what I discovered for myself was not revolutionary. However, far too many people at each event forget this, and the foundation of a friendly relationship is neglected in place of the temporary win of a quick sale.

To put it bluntly, networking events suck, for the most part. But, they don’t have to be this way. If you take the networking part out of the event, you have a fantastic opportunity to make friends that could (or could not) eventually become a client of yours. To break it down:

  • Be the first to give value generously. Ask about the other person, and only talk about yourself when asked.
  • Do not treat an event like a speed dating contest, where the goal is to card-swap as much as possible.
  • Don’t treat people like prospects, even if you would really like them to be a client of yours.

And, most importantly, make friends :)