Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ten Reasons Businesses Fail to Make Business Networking Work for Them

With the New Year fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what you might be doing to stop yourself making the most of your business networking. Have a look through this list and ask yourself where you are falling down.

Perhaps that will give you some food for thought as you consider your new year's resolutions on January 1st.

So here are ten reasons I believe businesses fail to make networking work for them. What would you add to this list?

1 - They don't have a clear message.

We all think that we communicate clearly what we do, but few of us do this successfully.
RESOLUTION TIP - Ask people in your network for their perception of what you do, who for and when people need your help.

2 - They don't know what success will look like

We join networks with a vague idea that they will help our business but without planning out exactly how.
RESOLUTION TIP - Work out the REAL cost of your networking to you, and then set yourself a challenging, yet realistic return which will justify your investment. How will you reach that return?

3 - They fail to commit

It's not enough just to join a network or plan a strategy, you have to see it through. It's an old cliche, but you really do get out what you are prepared to put in.
RESOLUTION TIP - Look at your networking memberships and goals and ask yourself what YOU have to do to get the results you are looking for. Then ask yourself how achievable it is. If it's too much, adjust your activity to make it more realistic. If it's easy, perhaps you could be doing more.

4 - They don't do their homework

"Fail to plan and you plan to fail". Before you attend a meeting, prepare for it. If you have to give a presentation, know exactly what you want to achieve from it and what you are going to say before you go.
RESOLUTION TIP - Put time in your diary each week or each month to look at forthcoming events and why you are going. Work out who you can catch up with or meet there and, if appropriate, contact people in advance to arrange to hook up. And plan any presentations you may have to give.

5 - They don't follow up their referrals

If you get a reputation for being unreliable, you won't get referrals. Whether you value the referral or not, FOLLOW IT UP. Even more importantly, make sure you feedback to the person who referred you and keep them in the loop.
RESOLUTION TIP - Keep a list to track all referrals received and latest action. If you are not responsible for following it up, make sure you know who is and get feedback from them to pass on. Most importantly, say thank you.

6 - They focus on the sale, not the relationship

Few people go to networking events to buy. So you have to ask yourself what the point is of trying to sell to people who aren't in buying mode. Think beyond the short-term gain and develop relationships. After all, wouldn't you prefer to get ten referrals from a long-term relationship than one sale from a passing contact?
RESOLUTION TIP - Go through your contact management system or business card file and pick ten people to whom you haven't spoken for a while. Re-establish contact and then stay in touch.

7 - They are '9 to 5 Networkers'

Many people believe that joining a network and either turning up to a meeting or logging in is enough. It isn't. The most successful networkers meet with their fellow members regularly OUTSIDE of meetings; whether socially or in 1-2-1 and small group meetings.
RESOLUTION TIP - Set time aside in your diary every week to meet people from your network, and make sure you fill that time. Attend your networking group's social events and get to know your fellow members even better.

8 - They are 'destructive' rather than 'constructive'

A network thrives on positive energy. If you are in a group that is struggling, use the meeting time to focus on making what you have work, keep concerns outside the meeting. If you want to contribute to blogs and discussions online, keep your comments positive and constructive, don't destroy other people's hard work with nasty or negative comments.
RESOLUTION TIP - Focus on being positive whenever you engage in your networking. People don't want to buy from or refer to negative people. If there are problems, keep your comments positive and constructive, focusing on the solution.

9 - They are collectors
Whether it's business cards at networking events or connections online, there are people who believe that he who has the most wins the game. Networking doesn't work like that.
RESOLUTION TIP - Collect and hand out cards if your conversation dictates it. Connect online with people with whom you have something in common, and talk about them when you connect, not yourself.

10 - They like their comfort zone
Many people attend events and find it a waste of time, because they've spent the whole time talking to their work colleagues and best friends.
RESOLUTION TIP - Don't let your nerves get in the way, break out of your comfort zone and meet new people. If you are going to talk to people you already know, make sure it fits with your strategy, not just because it's safe.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Perfect Referral

I recently spoke at a Success Day for Forever Living Products in Cheltenham. The event was the result of a referral from Dave Clarke of NRG Networks, and, more specifically, a regular meeting we have to see how we can help each other.

Having a referrals strategy is not as simple as asking people 'can you refer me?'. It involves a clear understanding of the introductions you are looking for, knowing who your 'Champions' are and communicating clearly enough to make it simple for them to help you.

In his 'Business Networking Blog', Dave has described how the referral came about from his point of view.

Are you getting enough referrals from your network? Are there people who you know would be willing to refer you but don't? In your referrals strategy, it is important to understand the perspective of your referrers, rather than just coming at it from your own angle. It's too easy to miss the importance of this and not see the wider picture.

Try asking your most likely referrers what they need in order to refer you. You might be surprised at the responses.

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008 - Was this the dawn of a new age of networking?

This article was originally published in The National Networker

Has this been the year networking has grown up in the UK? There certainly seem to have been more changes in the last 12 months than any comparable period in the last decade.

Before 2000, very few businesses were aware of networking as a formal way of developing a business. A few Chambers of Commerce ran popular events; meanwhile, Business Network International (BNI) and Business Referral Exchange (BRX) were in their infancy in this country, encouraging people of the virtues of getting out of bed for 7am to do business. Beyond that and a few independent groups, networking had a very low profile.

The landscape has now changed dramatically. Almost every Chamber of Commerce will provide opportunities through breakfast meetings, networking lunches and early evening cocktails. Breakfast meetings come in all shapes and sizes to satisfy different appetites, with a vast array of groups meeting weekly, fortnightly and monthly. You pay your money, you take your choice!

4Networking offer a ‘passport membership’ allowing their members to pick and choose local groups and go to five meetings a week if they choose to. Meanwhile, there is a wide menu of lunch groups and evening networks to go if the other options are not to your taste.

The online revolution has been even more dramatic. While networking groups have been around for years, if not widespread, a decade ago online networks were almost non-existent. Ecademy celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year, Xing came along even later and in Facebook didn’t see the light of day until just four years ago. Now there are countless social and online business networks, with more and more being created daily thanks to platforms such as Ning, which allow individuals to create their own social network with the minimum of fuss.

So, there are a lot more opportunities to network and a greater range of choice as to how to do so. How has this affected people’s behaviour when they do network?

Mindy Gibbins-Klein, a former Area Director for BNI in East London, believes that the growth of online networks has led to a drop off in the amount of structured face to face networking.

“I have seen many business people think twice about attending "expensive" face-to-face networking meetings lately”, said Mindy. “I've been getting a lot more emails and networking messages from people I've not been in touch with for a long time, which leads me to believe they are spending more time networking at their desks and less time out and about.

“I've also noticed that the networks that seem to be gaining ground are less strict about attendance and giving referrals, more open in terms of allowing people to attend different meetings.”

It has been apparent that a common theme among the recent ‘competitors’ to the weekly breakfast meetings has been the removal of the emphasis on a weekly commitment. Starting with BoBs (Business over Breakfast) Clubs a few years ago, who offered their groups the choice of meeting weekly or fortnightly, more groups have chosen a less frequent meeting pattern. One of the major reasons people have chosen not to join BNI or BRX in the past has been the weekly commitment, but does this change the focus of the network?

“We don’t call ourselves a referral network”, says 4Networking Managing Director Brad Burton. “In fact, we have a relationship with BNI and many of our members belong to both organisations.

“We found that our members don’t want to be tied to a set time and place every week, indeed many simply can’t commit on that scale. So we allow people to network at frequencies to suit them, some will come once or twice a month but many actually go to more than one meeting a week. It just may not always be the same meeting.”

The cost and commitment of the traditional referral networks has put off a number of people who are new to networking, and those who have been members in the past. The new networks offer an alternative and encourage people to network who might not do so otherwise, but it is important that people understand the difference.

The new types of network are far more focused on sales than referrals. Brad Burton calls 4Networking’s approach ‘Appointment Networking’, with members and guests spending ten minutes with each of three different people during the course of a meeting, while The Business Club (fortnightly in the evenings) make a strong pitch on selling to other members and guests at their launch events.

With new networks focusing much more on immediate response, where are the opportunities to build deep relationships? There has been a clear growth in the numbers of leadership and mastermind groups available, with a number of competitors to Vistage and ACE emerging in the CEO group market, and people becoming more aware of Mastermind groups. Formal leadership and mastermind groups are still, on the whole, a more costly option, although their members would argue the value provided is much higher than less focused networks.

With mastermind groups fairly simple for individuals to put together and more networks incorporating Masterminding techniques in their meeting formats, I think that we will see a growth in small groups focused around business challenges in the next couple of years and less focus on the need for large numbers in face to face networking meetings. The focus on strong relationships and trust will, by their very nature, lie at the core of these groups.

In the meantime, more people are turning to online networks to meet new people. Ecademy have seen a 142% increase in traffic on last year and LinkedIn is becoming a recognised business tool across the UK, and not just among small business. The interesting change in behaviour is on Facebook as an increasing number of people are comfortable using the network to promote their business and events rather than simply to communicate with friends.

Business Matters, the leading magazine for small businesses in the UK, have set up their own Facebook group. Editor Richard Alvin believes that the medium allows him to show the ‘personal’ side of the magazine to its readers, as well as increasing their exposure to a wider audience.

Richard explained, “Facebook has a far more friendly 'personal brand' and graphical approach compared to Linked in and even Ecademy. The style of communication is different, with normal language used, rather than ‘business speak’. I feel that this gives us a closer bond with both our readers and other Facebook members. We feel as though we know each other personally, and that makes a huge difference.

The advent of online networks has had other benefits for Business Matters. “We are more online focused now,” he said, “I can network nationally from my office, rather than just London wide.

“As we are a national publication that is essential, and there are obvious cost efficiencies we can take advantage of by networking online. Additionally, building a relationship online first can make a lot of difference when you have a meeting with someone elsewhere in the UK.”

Despite the growth of online networks, relationships still need to take place offline. People are starting to understand this and there have been signs that activity is being increasingly split between virtual connections and real-time relationship building.

Many of the people I have spoken to and network with talk about the vital role 1-2-1s play, even in their online networks. Many online business networks have had meetings as part of their offering for some time. Now, however, those who don’t still find their members arranging their own events, with LinkedIn user groups a good example of this.

Some online networks, such as Angels Den, have recognised the importance of this by focusing even more on offline events. Angels Den found that their results improved when they introduced Speed Funding for members.

Bill Morrow, the owner of Angels Den, said, “Online is groovy for making connections, finding out who walks the walk ... but nothing can surpass meeting face-to-face for serious meetings.”

“Our online community works well at finding investors, but only one deal in over 100 has been done purely online”

With people in the UK joining local networks and global ones such as Perfect Networker and Fast Pitch, Twittering with each other and Poking on Facebook, a saturation point is fast approaching. Most of the connection requests I receive on the multiple networks that come across my computer are from the same people. There has to be a point where you question the purpose of connecting with the same person in a different place. Particularly when that new connection point offers nothing new.

In the meantime, new contacts increasingly come from further and further afield and many seem only interested in either notching another connection on their social networking bedpost or sending a lot of spam once the connection has been made.

We are already seeing signs of people being turned away from social networks by these issues. Many business people don’t want to trade globally and are purely focused on building their profile and their networks locally. As the novelty wears off, I believe the behaviour of many networkers will change and they will focus on networks closer to home.

Some of those will be online, others face to face. Some face to face networks have recognised this and many now offer social networking software as part of their membership package. People recognise the benefits online networks offer them as they look for tools to initiate new relationships and stay in touch with people they have met. They recognise, however, that they don’t provide all of the answers on their own.

There have been a lot of changes in the way people network in the UK over the last twelve months. The profile of networking has grown, more businesses of all sizes recognise its importance and the variety of alternatives on offer is greater than ever before.

Businesses are just starting to make sense of the opportunities available to them and how they fit into their business. 2009 is going to be an interesting year, particularly with a recession in full flow.

Networking is more important than ever before, and it’s just starting to reach maturity.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

How 'Good' are You?

I checked my emails this morning to find that I had been rated 'Good' on Ecademy by someone I had never previously interacted with. I then received a thank you from a fellow speaker for a testimonial I had posted on his LinkedIn profile, and asking about the etiquette for reciprocating.

This area of online networking can be a minefield for many. When do you rate someone as 'good'? Should you automatically offer a testimonial to someone who has provided one for you? What should you say in a testimonial?

Personally, I don't see the value in any reputation-based system that operates on the basis of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. Such systems can only carry weight if the ratings and testimonials contained therein are based on genuinely positive interactions and experiences. I will rate someone as 'good' if my experience backs that up and I want other people to know that this is someone who can be trusted.

I will write a testimonial based on my experiences. Testimonials that say what a nice chap you are carry little weight in the commercial world. Testimonials need to demonstrate your abilities, the difference you make to clients, your value to prospects.

If you have a strong relationship with someone else and you are both in a position to offer strong, positive testimonials to each other, that is fine. It should be clear to the reader from the content of the testimonial that isn't simply a mutual appreciation society.

If you want to offer someone else a testimonial based on what they have done for you or for someone you have introduced them to, there is no need to expect one in return. Similarly, if someone endorses your services, don't feel the need to reciprocate unless appropriate.

A simple rule of thumb for you; if you receive a phone call from someone who has read your testimonial and wants to ask you more about that person, can you stand by what you have said and explain your reasons for endorsing them in more detail?

If the answer is 'yes', then great. If not, perhaps you shouldn't be endorsing them at all....yet.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Networking strategy seminar - summarised

Marketing expert Jon Dean came along to one of my recent workshops on networking strategy. Jon went away and outlined the lessons he learnt in his blog, which you can read here.

Jon has summarised a number of the key lessons very well and paints a nice picture of the simple steps you can take to putting a networking strategy into place. The question is, are you taking them?

Friday, December 05, 2008

People are People

I received a cold call yesterday. It was from one of the larger mobile phone networks.

They told me that I had attended an event a couple of weeks ago and expressed an interest in their services, they were just following up. When I pressed for details of the event, my caller couldn't tell me.

The only time I have interacted with this company at an event wasn't a fortnight ago, but twelve months ago. I had spoken with a senior manager about how they use events like that and how they get results. He wanted to talk some more so I gave him my card. I subsequently heard nothing, even in reply to my emails, until yesterday.

How much goodwill is being destroyed by organisations who use exhibitions and networking events as list-building exercises? How many promises are made, and then broken, just to grab somebody's business card?

And how effective is it to treat everyone you meet at exhibitions, events and conferences in the same way. As fodder for a cold call?

Networking is all about building relationships and developing connections who may buy from you, who may refer you and who may recommend you. If you just want a list, you can buy them for much less than a networking membership or stand at an event.

After a recent event at which I spoke one of the delegates replied to the survey sent out by the organisers. "The event was OK", he said, "but I didn't get much from the networking".

"Where can I get a copy of the delegate list?"