"Are Networking Events Worth My Time?"

Laurie Roberts was terrified of cold-calling when she became a sales rep five years ago for her mother's Allen, TX company Proforma Promotions Remembered!!!  "I couldn't pick up the phone," she recalls.

To build her client base, Roberts decided to try a different tack: She began attending local chamber of commerce meetings and other small networking groups. She worked her way up the chamber totem pole, eventually becoming the chairwoman of its ambassador program. Along the way, she racked up a roster of 400 steady customers, often after meeting them at chamber events. At the first groundbreaking ceremony she attended, she connected with a local developer who brought her $37,000 in business over two years. "It was just because I was in the right place at the right time," Roberts says. "To me, that's what networking is. I could beat on doors all day long and not get in to see the right person." Through smart networking, the right people come to Roberts.

Many small-business owners are dismissive of networking events, disappointed when they don't see an instant boost in sales. But good networking, says sales trainer Lisa Peskin, CEO of Business Development University, is much like farming: It requires consistent cultivation to bear fruit.

Do your research. The most important part begins before you ever leave the office. Take some time to figure out which groups are best suited to your strengths and goals. The local chamber of commerce was a good fit for Roberts, but it's not the right choice for everyone. Peskin recommends asking your existing clients about the organizations they belong to and targeting those events. "You've got to be really careful about where you're spending your time," she says.

Be a matchmaker. Networking doesn't work unless you're willing to give, not just get. Don't try to sell your own product; instead, look for ways to make strategic alliances between the people you meet; oftentimes, upping your business karma by making such connections will lead to referrals down the line. "Most people are about telling and selling," says Bonnie Ross-Parker, a speaker and author who bills herself as America's Connection Diva. "To be a resourceful networker, it's much more about sharing and caring."

Socialize with purpose. Try to get a copy of the RSVP list before an event, but if that fails, scan the nametag table – use your smartphone camera rather than relying on your memory – to get an idea of who is attending, Peskin says. Then, work the room, first seeking out the people you are likely to have the best chance of connecting with. If the event isn't too big, though, try to talk to everybody, Roberts says. "You never know who has a brother who runs a company," she points out.

Invite a client plus one. If you're attending an event with an interesting speaker, consider inviting a client and asking the client to bring a friend. It's a strategy that's worked well for Derek Coburn, financial manager and author of Networking is NOT Working. "I bring sand to the beach," he explains. "I do this a lot, and even though I never directly sell or follow up with them, I'm meeting all these individuals, and a number of them are becoming clients of mine."

Follow up. Organize the business cards you receive at each event to ensure easy follow-up. Peskin will mark each with a number: one for people she just wants to connect with on LinkedIn, two for people she also wants to arrange a phone meeting with and three for hot prospects interested in a face-to-face meeting. Putting a formal system in place will keep you from getting overwhelmed or letting a new connection fall through the cracks.– Theresa Hegel

Stand Out From the Crowd

When you attend a lot of networking events, it can be easy to blend in. Try one of these three strategies to create a lasting impression.

  1. Develop a signature style. Consider wearing a unique pin or perhaps a bold tie – something unusual, but still tasteful, to start conversations or jog memories. Speaker Bonnie Ross-Parker, for example, has become known for her love of cowboy boots and wears a pair from her collection at every event she attends.
  3. Put your photo on your business card. Laurie Roberts, sales rep for Proforma Promotions Remembered!!! wants to make sure people can put a face to her name, so she made it easy with full-color business cards that include a thumbnail headshot. "I thought it was important that people know me," she said.
  5. Hand out creative self-promos. If you want to demonstrate the power of promotional items, start with yourself. Offering a cool item as a door prize at a breakfast meeting, say, can garner goodwill and spark someone's interest in your business, Roberts says. –TH