Welcome to guest freelancer, Jackie Mitchell, who shares her experience of networking and provides a handy list of top networking tips.
I’d never considered networking as a way of winning new business until, after a double bereavement, I took some time out. When I returned to work, my client list was virtually non-existent.
I was invited to the launch of the Sandown Esher BNI (Business Networking International) chapter, which I found uplifting, mainly because I met other freelancers like me, running one person businesses – whether they were a web site designer, an Independent Financial Adviser (IFA) or a florist.
At first, I was reluctant to join, not only because of the time commitment, but also the financial outlay (£200 back then). But, after attending a couple of meetings and talking with other members, I decided to take the plunge.
BNI chapters meet once a week, starting at 6.30am with breakfast included. Venues vary from golf clubs to restaurants. There is a strict format, while three members of the chapter volunteer to become the chairman, membership secretary and treasurer for usually a six month period. They organise the meeting which starts with open networking.
The chairman opens the meeting, during which each member in turn stands up and tells everyone about their business – in 60 seconds! This is terrifying at first, but becomes easier. To begin with, write a script and read it out until you become more confident. In your script, you’re encouraged to ask for referrals – an introduction to a local business, for example. Some veteran members perfect the elevator pitch to such an extent, they are almost like stand-up comedians.
After this, a member gives a ten-minute presentation about their business and then it’s time for the referrals. You do feel pressurised to come up with referrals week after week and, by doing so, cementing the relationship with your fellow members. To begin with, this was difficult, but it’s surprising how you do find referrals. For example, a neighbour said they were looking for a gardener so I put them in touch with a BNI member from my chapter.
The ethos of BNI is that if you personally, or someone you know, is looking for someone such as a plumber, you bring the referral to the group first.
BNI is time-consuming as you’re expected to have 1-2-1s – separate meetings with fellow members to understand their business and find ways they can help each other. This is crucial – after all you don’t want to recommend anyone you don’t know anything about. You are also expected to bring new members and contacts to the group, especially for visitors’ days.
Some businesses fare better than others. At my chapter, the woman who sold mobile phones received an enormous amount of business, as did the electrician and printer.
These are businesses which can easily be put across in 60 seconds. My business – public relations – is less straight-forward so the only way to do it was to bring in blow ups of press coverage I had achieved for clients. When I achieved coverage for a fellow chapter member, then the others began to understand my business and I began to get referrals.
Early morning starts
During the first 18 months I managed to build my business thanks to BNI. We were a new chapter so we were enthusiastic and motivated. Sadly that died gradually as people left, either because they were disillusioned with BNI or for other reasons. For three years I was a BNI member. I gave up when the early morning starts began to make an impact and I lost my enthusiasm for it.
It not only brought business, but also helped to rebuild my confidence and I made several friends along the way. But I do think it depends on the nature of your business and the chapter in which you belong.
Last year, as a result of the recession, my client list decreased dramatically. PR is normally a casualty of recessions, so I thought about networking again. Another contact mentioned The Athena Network and invited me to a new group in Hampton. Athena is a networking organisation for business women only, so I decided to give it a try.
I found the atmosphere less intimidating than BNI. It felt friendly and supportive and, crucially, it’s lunchtime and not early morning. In some ways it’s similar to BNI. There is open networking, then you sit down to a proper lunch (buffet-style or it’s served at the table).
Robyn Hatley, regional director, is adept at making everyone feel welcome and relaxed. There is no feeling of pressure to come up with referrals, rather they evolve naturally as women form relationships. Each member gives a 60 second elevator pitch, which for some women is very creative – like the virtual assistant who threw a pile of business cards on the floor and said how she could help by putting all those details on a database for you.
After a short talk by a guest speaker (we recently had a computer support service guru) we go round the table again when referrals or testimonials are given or you can simply say you enjoyed the meeting.
At Hampton, I asked for a charity referral and to my astonishment received one which led to an ongoing contract last year. I also received other business during my time at Hampton before I transferred to the new Weybridge, Surrey, chapter as it is nearer for me. What’s more Robyn and her partner Tricia Taylor asked me to do some PR to promote the new Weybridge group and subsequently the Cobham and Chertsey/Ottershaw groups.
Fun and inspiring
Networking isn’t all about getting new business. It’s also about building relationships and making contacts. I look forward to the Athena meetings as they are fun and inspiring. As someone who works alone, they bring me into contact with like-minded women facing similar challenges.
Although you’re a member of one Athena group, there’s the opportunity to meet members from other groups through the web site or at joint events.
With all the new networking organisations springing up, the danger is that you could spend all your time at networking groups. The answer is to find one or two that you enjoy and which really work for you.
TOP NETWORKING TIPS
Here are some handy hints from what I’ve learnt over the years:
- Prepare – if you can, always get hold of the attendance list in advance, so you can pinpoint whom you would like to meet.
- Wear something eye-catching and bright which makes you stand out from the crowd – useful if someone is trying to find you.
- Take your own badge – normally most events will have badges, but just in case. Wear it on the right. It’s where your eye goes to when you shake hands.
- Arrive on time for the event – it always seems a lot easier to introduce yourself to someone when you are one of the first arrivals.
- Ask ‘hosts’ and organisers to introduce you to people. They are generally well connected and it’s in their interest to do so.
- The business card – make sure you bring plenty with you. Don’t pass them out like flyers – only give them to people with whom you’ve had a meaningful conversation (unless you’re at a speed networking event).
- Think about what you are going to say to each contact – from your buyer’s benefit point of view. Have a 30 second elevator pitch prepared about your business, but don’t oversell yourself.
- Listen to what other people do first (everyone is interested if you’re interested in them) and listen for link words that connect with who you are and what you do.
- Watch your body language – don’t be overbearing or over-pushy as this will be offputting. Stand back, be friendly and above all listen to what the other person is saying. Don’t look over their shoulder to see if someone more interesting has entered the room.
- Keep moving – don’t attach yourself like a limpet to the first person.
- Follow up – it doesn’t stop here – you made some great new contacts at last night’s networking event, you need to follow up – so send them an e-mail and arrange meetings with those you wish to pursue.
Have you got any networking tips you’d like to share?
Jackie Mitchell is a freelance PR consultant and writer, specialising in food and drink, healthcare and charities. You can find out more about her at www.jackiem.com and www.jackiem-writing.com Or follow her on www.twitter.com/jackiemmitchell
Here are the web addresses for the networking groups Jackie mentioned: