How to avoid business networking fatigue

Even seasoned execs can have trouble turning business networking into profitable relationships, says Charlie Lawson of networking association BNI.

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Last Updated: 02 Apr 2015

Another networking event.  Another bunch of people I don’t know that I should be meeting.  I know I should engage in small talk.  I know I should be looking to generate some new business.  I know I should give out lots of business cards, at which point they’ll give me theirs.  I know that when I get back to the office I’ll do absolutely nothing with the cards I’ve collected.
 
Come on – I’m a senior manager – what am I going to gain from the people I will meet?  I’ve been in business many years, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, I keep on top of the market movements and trends in my industry, so I’m not going to learn anything new by being here, surely?
 
So if I do go to this networking event, what I’ll probably do is hang out with my colleagues from my company, having a chat over a glass of wine and some canapés (I’ll make do with a coffee and sandwiches if it’s not a flash do).  That way, I can at least vaguely enjoy the event, and when I get back to the office, I won’t feel guilty about throwing the business cards I do collect in the bin.
 
Sound familiar? 

Ever thought any of the above when you heard the words ‘networking event’?
 
What to do?  As someone infinitely more intelligent than me once said – the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  It is genuinely very easy to go to a networking event and come away with something tangible: just as long as you don’t expect that something tangible to be completed business.
 
Would you ever go to a networking event with the intention of buying something?  Of course you wouldn’t. So it stands to reason that no one else in attendance is going to buy anything from you.  So trying to do business then and there is never going to work.
 
Don’t only talk to people you know
 
Instead, follow the golden rule of networking – use the occasion to build relationships with people (and yes, this does include people you don’t know).  If you feel that following your initial conversation, there would be merit in continuing it – then arrange to meet up for a coffee at a later date.  This totally takes away the pressure of thinking that I have to ‘do some business’ – it’s just about finding out if there’s enough common ground to want to take the relationship further.
 
But – I hear you say – that means I’m going to have to listen to people boring me to tears about their business, to which I’m only going to reciprocate by telling them about my business.  That’s only going to end with the old problem of receiving a stack of unwanted business cards – fodder for the bin.
 
Facts tell, stories sell
 
What we’ve got to remember is that in business, even at a high management level, we’re only ever going to be dealing with people.  What do people like to hear? People like stories.  People like emotions.  People like to hear about success.  People don’t like to hear facts.
 
So if, when networking, you share a bunch of facts about your business, yes, you will bore them!  They don’t care that it was founded in 1922, they don’t care that it operates out of 17 different premises around the world, they don’t care that it offers the latest hi-tech solution that will solve all their needs.
 
What they do care about is hearing about how you could help them or their contacts.  So – share with them a story about how you helped a client recently.  Give details on the situation the client found themselves in – had they posted poor financial performance and shareholders were getting concerned?  Was the client having to make large scale redundancies due to poor sales performance?
 
Having illustrated the situation – show how you helped.  Did you save them money?  Did you increase sales?  Did you improve their bottom line?  Did you help them increase their efficiency?
 
Remember: facts tell, stories sell.  Not only will you find networking more enjoyable if you share stories, the contacts you meet will remember you, and will be better able to help you generate more business as relationships develop.

Charlie Lawson is national director of BNI, the UK’s largest business referral and networking organisation

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