Mythbusters: Business networking might not generate sales

Before you panic and start cancelling all of your memberships, bear with me. I didn’t say it’s all a waste of time!

The myth is that new business comes directly from networking groups. Because of that myth, it is common practice to join a group, turn up for a while and then question why you have seen no results.  The fact that many miss is that networking groups are merely the starting point; most of the business done and most of the relationships built are based on understanding developed outside of the meetings.

This fact stands whether you are looking at an online networking group or one where the members meet face to face. In both cases you still need to develop strong relationships with fellow members and that means spending some quality time with them.

I write and speak a lot about the importance of the depth of relationships developed through networking. Yes, it is important to build a wide and diverse network, but the real power comes from people who know, like and trust you. That’s when people will go out of their way to support you, when people will genuinely want to refer you, when people will seek out the appropriate opportunities.

Referrals and support come not from networking groups but from your network. They are two distinct entities. Your network comprises people you have relationships with, whether they are personal contacts or people you know through business. Your network includes your friends and family, social contacts, people you have met because your children go to the same school. It includes clients, suppliers, business associates and people you have met at networking groups.

Depending on the strength of your relationship, it is these people who want to support you the most, and networking groups are simply a way of feeding that network.

If you can focus on this, you can approach your membership of networking groups in a different way. Instead of looking for one off ‘hits’, people who you immediately see an opportunity to work with or sell to, find people who you’d like to get to know better. Spend time talking with them, meeting outside of the network and developing a real friendship. Through doing so, you will soon count them as a key part of your network, rather than simply being members of the same group.

For someone to refer you effectively, two key elements need to be in place. They need to both trust you enough to effectively put their reputation on the line every time they introduce you to one of their contacts, and they need to understand your business in enough depth to be able to recognise and convert opportunities to refer you.

The limitation with relying on networking groups, or online networks for that matter, is the number of people present. Unless you are in a small Mastermind-style group, there is little opportunity to have in-depth conversations with fellow members and get to know them better. This makes it very difficult to build anything other than a superficial relationship and unlikely that you will develop the levels of trust and understanding that enable mutual referrals and support.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that people who focus their networking purely within the meetings struggle to achieve the potential from their membership. If you take a typical BNI-style meeting for example, if there are 40 members up to one hour of a meeting will typically be taken up with presentations. There are opportunities for brief conversations before and over breakfast.

Yet there are always members who leave the meeting as soon as the formal section has finished. Typically, they then won’t be seen again until the following week.

It’s not much different at larger and less frequent events such as Chambers of Commerce. Many people spend time looking to meet as many new people as possible, collecting business cards. Conversations are fleeting, handshakes rushed and elevator pitches exchanged. They then move onto their next contact.

The only way those connections can work is if you develop them over time. That means taking time out of meetings to have better conversations. I often use that time initially just to get to know each other socially. After all, you want people you like and have something in common with in your network. Over time you can then find out more about each other’s business, the challenges you face and the introductions you seek.

Networking groups often impress on their members the need to have regular 1-2-1 meetings with each other away from their events. It’s not enough just to meet once and tick that person off your list, remember that you are looking to develop a relationship and that means regular conversations and staying in touch. It doesn’t just have to be two of you, meet in small groups socially as well.

Twitter and LinkedIn users are now holding regular ‘Meet Ups’ (or ‘Tweetups for Twitter fans!) so that they can meet face to face. In the UK, Ecademy have been doing this for years.

You will struggle to achieve anything near the potential from your networking if you focus your efforts purely on the events or forums provided by the organisation. Identify people who can justify a place within your network and build the relationship with them.

Networking groups don’t provide referrals. They can, however, introduce you to the people who, over time, will.

Andy Lopata is one of the UK’s leading business networking and referrals strategists.

For more information visit his website Click Here