You may think that great networkers are born, not made. But fret not, says Beth Bridges, who is known as The Networking Motivator. Becoming a networking expert is within your grasp. “We expect ourselves to be instantly great at working a room, and then we get frustrated when we aren’t,” Bridges says. “I don’t believe you have to be a natural at networking. This is not a talent, it’s a skill. And with any skill, you can build and develop it.”
Bridges has plenty of evidence to draw from, having attended over 2,500 networking events in the past decade, many of them in her previous roles as the membership director and chief networking officer for the Clovis Chamber of Commerce, which serves California’s Central Valley. Today, Bridges teaches others to improve their networking through speaking engagements, training and her best-selling book Networking on Purpose: A Five-Part Success Plan to Build a Powerful and Profitable Business Network.
If you’re not proficient at networking, Bridges acknowledges it can be hard at first – like a person taking up jogging and struggling the first few times. “Six months down the road you find yourself jogging for three miles and thinking ‘I feel great.’ That’s the sensation,” she says. “It will get easier and it will get better and better.” Dedication and a deliberate plan will pay off, she adds.
In this Q&A, Bridges explains why it’s important in networking to talk less, and the dangers of trying to score an immediate sale at your next chamber mixer.
Q: Maybe it’s obvious, but why is networking so essential for business owners?
Beth Bridges: It really gets down to trust and also breaking through a lot of the clutter and the noise. We get so many marketing messages and sales messages and we’re suspicious of so many of them, and to a certain extent rightfully so. One of the things about networking is when you build a relationship with someone, you almost don’t have to go through that whole “Here’s my message, here’s my sales piece, here’s my marketing piece.” It helps you skip through all that.
Q: Are business owners and salespeople devoting enough time to networking?
BB: Many are, but most of it is not deliberate and focused. This is where I was when I first started – I did not have a specific strategy or plan. I just went to stuff. And that will work for you, but the problem is it takes a lot of extra time – months and years of events and hours of time put in, and most business people don’t have that kind of time.
Q: What can they do to improve their networking?
BB: The biggest thing is that almost no one does any kind of follow up. The number of follow-up notes, emails or phone calls I’ve received over the years is probably less than 1% -- even when I’ve done a lot of speaking, including speaking to job seekers. That tells me almost everybody is stopping halfway through the process. Like sales, how are you going to build a relationship with someone if you meet them once and only meet them again through random chance?
Q: What does a deliberate plan involve?
BB: That’s what I wanted to write the book on. It’s gotta be pretty simple. It’s not complicated. In my book, there are five parts I see to networking. And it starts with believing in something. For most people, it might be believing in themselves, the product or the process. In networking, you have to believe in the process, because it is a long-term strategy. If all you’re doing is trying to sell people right away, that’s skipping the whole process and it almost ends up being cold calling in person. And no one really enjoys being on the receiving end of that.
Q: That’s interesting – a lot of salespeople look at networking as a way to immediately generate sales. But you’re saying they shouldn’t be aggressive?
BB: It’s really important not to go into networking events trying to sell others the first time you meet them. If they say no to you because they don’t need your product right then, or they don’t know you, or they’re put off by the fact that you’ve just met them and asked them to buy your stuff, you’ve closed the door. Even if they aren’t a potential customer, they may have known 20 people who could have been potential customers.
Q: So how do you combat the urge to go for the sale?
BB: It’s going to be hard if you don’t have a sales pipeline in place already. If you can go into your networking without feeling like you have to make a sale, you’re going to be a more relaxed networker and people are going to appreciate talking to you more, especially if you can focus on them and not yourself. Everybody’s favorite topic is themselves. If you can avoid thinking about a sale and build a relationship, it will establish you as an authority. Down the line, that will lead to more sales.
Q: If you’re not going into your sales pitch, what should you talk about?
BB: I have a philosophy in networking: The person who talks the least, wins the most. If all you manage to tell them is your name and that you help people find really great promotional products, and that’s the last thing you say, don’t even worry about it. Because you want to listen to them. You want to find out about their business, background and hobbies. You want to learn about what they’re trying to accomplish and their problems in their business. It’s great actually to listen to people complain about their business. Every problem they have is a problem you can help them solve. Have a handful of questions in your pocket, and you don’t need to say much at all except ask your questions. Now if you’ve got two introverts who don’t want to talk, you’ve got a problem, but for the most part, the other person will love to tell you stories.
Q: I’m glad you brought this up. There are a lot of people who get hives at the thought of walking into a roomful of strangers and feeling forced to talk to them. What’s your advice for them?
BB: One of the things to keep in mind is that I define a networking event as any time two or more people get together for the purposes of networking. And one of those people is you. It could be coffee or lunch, it could be one-on-one. That’s as legitimate a networking opportunity as going to a big ol’ event or mixer.
But I do have a lot of strategies for introverts. One is to use the buddy system. Find an extroverted friend who is going and go with them and let you introduce them to some people. Or, if you’re going to an event you’ve never been to before, call the organizer and be straight with them: “I think I’m not going to know a single person.” If the organizer is not helpful, that might be setting the tone for the event. As an organizer, I would have said, “As soon as you get there, come find me. And I will introduce you to some other people.”
Q: When you are at an event, does it matter who you talk to?
BB: This is the point where you’re working to become more efficient. If you’re starting out, go out and meet people to practice and expand your circle. Once you become more selective, that’s where you start thinking about one-on-one and specialty groups. The benefit of a chamber of commerce is that they have done a lot of work for you in bringing together a number of networking-minded people in one place so that you can meet a number of them quickly. But with many mixers, you don’t know who’s going; they’re probably business people, but are they the owner or decision-maker? You can think of those events as the top of the funnel. There are more and deeper networking activities.
Q: So what are the right events for business owners and sales reps to look for?
BB: Free events are great because they’re free, and if you show up and it stinks, you can leave and all you spent is your time. And they’re great if you’re just getting started and you just want to practice. Go to free events. Chamber of Commerce mixers are not free, depending on your chamber and market they’re usually $5 or $10, but like I said the chamber has done a lot of the work for you. With paid events, you filtered out people who aren’t willing to invest in meeting people. You tend to meet people who are maybe more likely to be decision-makers. Don’t hesitate to call the organizer to find out more.
Also, fundraisers and galas where you’re eating dinners are not great for networking. They’re great for being seen, and people are there to have a great dinner and have a great time. When it comes to allocating your networking budget, I’d rather spend it more specifically on networking or business events.
Q: Before our conversation you mentioned an idea you had for promotional products companies. What’s your idea?
BB: When people buy a membership with the Chamber of Commerce, they’re getting services but not a lot of tangible things. And as a membership director, I always wanted to have something to hand to somebody. So here’s the idea I had if you’re in the promotional products business. Have “Networking Notebooks” made with your logo on them, and maybe a pen as well. Go to the local chamber and tell them, “I know sometimes you don’t have anything to hand to your members when they join. I would like to supply you with these notebooks for your brand new members as a welcome gift.” I wouldn’t say no to that. In fact, as a membership director, I would have thought “I wonder what else they could put together to have a nice something to give these members.” Then whenever you received the newsletter every month welcoming new chamber members, you can call those people up and welcome them and make sure they received their notebook. Do not sell them. Follow up by asking if they plan on going to the next mixer, and offer to introduce them to some people. Now you’re building a relationship.