Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Time to Connect and a Time to Sell

What happens when you "door-to-door" sell at an event
Networking is not the only way to bring customers to your business.

You've got telemarketing, door-to-door sales, direct mail, and print advertising. Heck, you can even tie a banner behind an airplane and tow it around during the next college football home game. Because networking can take a long time to start paying off -- months or even years -- we should have it as a part of the mix of mechanisms we use to grow and prospect for our business.

That said, each has its time and place. The mistake most people make is thinking that the networking event is a good place to sell.

It really isn't.

I was doing a little casual research lately about sales. For most people trying to sell at a networking event is a lot like a combination of telemarketing and door-to-door sales. By the way, these methods do work to bring customers to your business. One of the articles I read quoted a study by the Direct Marketers Association. Apparently, using a targeted list, you could achieve a response rate of around 6% from cold-calling. Door-to-door statistics were a little harder to determine, but one person wrote that they expected to make a sale about one in forty times that someone answered the door (less than 3%).

Here are a few problems with trying anything like this at a networking event:
  • The numbers. Even if you could hope for getting a sale with one in twenty people. Unless every event you attend is with a brand new group, you will have a hard time finding enough folks who haven't already heard your sales pitch.
  • The focus. One of the reasons telemarketing achieves such a high rate or response is that they start out with a very targeted list of numbers to call. The average networking event is much more general, so unless you are selling umbrellas in the rain -- your odds are closer to one in forty, one in sixty, one in one hundred, or worse. As those numbers change, it gets even harder to target enough new people to fill your pipeline.
  • The time. Even assuming there are enough new people and they are of a sufficiently focused demographic, you then run into the trouble of time. Suppose you need to talk with twenty new people before you can get a sale. Most events I attend have about a twenty to thirty minute window for open networking. Let's see. Doing the math (carry the one), that leaves between 60 and 90 seconds for each conversation. Better not let them talk too much, it will really cut into your pitch time.
  • Their attention. When a telemarketer calls or a salesperson shows up at the door, they've got a few seconds of their prospect's undivided attention. How successful would they be if they had to compete with ten other salespeople trying to get the attention of a prospect who is in the middle of a conversation at a party with fifteen of their friends? That pitch had better be fascinating or it won't even rate a second glance. Heck, it won't even rate a first one.
  • Your reputation. No one, I repeat, no one, likes to be sold to. If you start pitching every single person you meet at the event, the word will quickly spread to avoid you at all costs. My mom, Debby Peters (aka the "Networking Guru"), refers to this as "commission breath" and there isn't a breath mint made that's strong enough to erase that stench. The equivalent in other sales techniques would be if a neighborhood had a telephone warning system where as soon as the salesman rang the first doorbell, a call went out telling the nearby houses not to answer the door.
Please, understand. I'm not saying that you shouldn't have other forms of prospecting as a part of your business development model. I'm just saying that you must keep them separate. There's a time to every purpose under heaven and the networking event (and the one-to-ones that come about as a result) are no place for a sales pitch.

Photo by Miguel Saavedra

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Activity is not Productivity

Are your networking activities leading you
down a path to where you want to go?
How much time did you spend "networking" last week?

How much of that was activity and how much was productivity?

Most people, when they are doing their networking, tend to work on things which aren't as productive as they could be. I'm not just talking about bottom-line, cash-in-the-hand, clients-or-contracts type productivity. I'm also talking about simply building stronger and deeper relationships which create a powerful resource that leads to those other benefits.

Let's look at the difference:

Activity: Going on Facebook (or LinkedIn, or whatever social media site)
Productivity: Engaging other people on Facebook, etc.
Spending an hour playing Farmville is not networking. Reading other people's posts is a good practice -- you can find out more about them and their interests that way. To count your social media time as productive, however, you need to be comment on what they've said or respond to their comments about what you said. That will make you stand out in their minds. Otherwise you are only one of their hundreds of "friends".

Activity: Attending networking events
Productivity: Attending networking events and meeting new people.
Most people just show up at the events and assume that this is sufficient for their networking effort. If you want it to be a productive use of your time, it needs to be more than that. You must have a specific goal for what you want to achieve while you are there -- and that goal can't be "to eat". Only by setting a goal -- specifically to meet new people -- can the event pay off for you.

Activity: Meeting new people at the networking event
Productivity: Following up with new people after the networking event
Just meeting new people isn't enough. Five to ten minutes of conversation doesn't make a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Only by following up and meeting with our new connections outside the networking event will those relationships grow from simple awareness to the level of trust, where all the real benefits of your networking kick in.

Activity: Developing your networking systems
Productivity: Developing a networking practice
This is one that tripped me up for quite some time. As a computer programmer, I wanted to develop the perfect web-based application to track and maintain my network. Of course, I couldn't get started networking until I actually had that system in place. Day after day I planned until, finally, my wife said, "Greg, use a spreadsheet and get busy. It will do for now." She was right. In fact, I never did get around to creating that perfect system and I'm still using a couple of spreadsheets to this day (and very happily, thank you). We need to avoid the "constructive avoidance" of creating our tools (whatever that might be for you) and just get busy connecting.

Activity: Clearing out your email/voice mail/mailbox
Productivity: Sending the message/making the call/sending the letter
These are more "constructive avoidance" activities. Others might include sharpening your pencils, organizing your files, cleaning your desk, straightening your office, etc. Set aside your time to network and then do it. No excuses, no distractions, no exceptions. Straightening your desk will not increase the depth nor the numbers of your connections.

Of course, committing yourself to productivity in your networking practice requires a certain amount of self-honesty. So often when it comes down to focusing on our relationships, we want to take the easier path -- the one where we feel like we are getting something done, but requires no real effort or risk on our part. If we aren't careful, though, we'll end up with an uncluttered desk and no real connections.

Your success can tolerate a messy desktop from time to time.

Photo by stock.xchng user ShadowRave

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Facebook Birthdays

When you wake up to this, you know it's going to be a
good birthday!
"Just think of it as being half way to ninety!"

This is what my dear friend, Angela Kujava, told me to cheer me up on the occasion of my forty-fifth birthday a couple of weeks ago. It still gives me a chuckle.

In addition to all of the other festivities -- I had three separate celebrations -- I received cards in the mail, phone calls from friends and family, and several dozen well-wishes from my Facebook friends.

Let's talk about that last group for a few minutes.

Facebook is a wonderful tool for networking. It's not a replacement for your face-to-face efforts, but it does afford a certain ability to maintain a light touch with the people you know -- if used properly. One of the features that makes it particularly handy is it gives you reminders of whoever is having a birthday today. Not only a reminder, it even provides an easy link to post a birthday message.

Here are a couple of things you can do with this facility that will make it an even more powerful networking tool.
  1. Use it. It takes about three seconds to click on the link and type in your message. Even assuming you have over a thousand FB friends, you still, on average, have only three or four birthdays on any given day.
  2. Show interest. Spend an extra second or two in order to make this the beginning of a conversation. "Happy birthday, Bob! Are you and Laura planning anything fun to celebrate?" Just by adding in that extra query, you can spark an interaction with that other person. Facebook is at its strongest as a networking tool when you can use the comments area to carry on a conversation.
  3. Personalize the message. We sometimes have people amongst our FB friends who we might not have seen in person in a while. Make sure that they know that you know who they are. "Happy Birthday, Matt! It seems like forever since we were in Black Belt Camp together."
  4. Make it an excuse. Not an excuse to forgive past behavior, but an excuse to propose future behavior. "Happy Birthday, Nick! It's been too long since we've had coffee. Do you have any availability in the next couple of weeks for us to get together?"
  5. Respond. This is for the person receiving these well-wishes. Respond to each birthday wish -- preferably as it comes in. Yes, you could just do a blanket "thank you" post (heck, you can still do that also), but it only takes a moment to say thank you to a specific person and they are far more likely to see it and feel appreciated if you respond to them individually. You can even apply some of the same techniques in 1 through 4 above to make the response more powerful.
Birthday wishes can be the most powerful networking messages you send. Giving someone a call or dropping them an email might very well make their day. You can even use Facebook to let them know that they are loved and remembered.

So, take a moment right now to start building those strong relationships with a simple "Happy Birthday!"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

One-to-One Conversations: An Epilogue

If this is what your one-to-ones are like,
you're doing it wrong.
It's not a government form.

The purpose of these categories of information we've discussed over the last five posts is not to create a series of boxes for you to fill out about your networking partners. It certainly isn't for you to create an actual form to hand them to fill out.

The goal here is to provide a guide to conversation. It's for those who are uncomfortable when they find themselves chatting with someone with whom they've only spoken for five minutes in a crowded room. In fact, you can even use the same general categories for that first time you meet at the networking event (though you certainly won't have the chance to go into any significant depth in such a venue).

You've probably heard of some other acronyms for this same process -- GAINS, GIFTS, FORMS, etc. They all work to further the relationship process if you use them properly. Just like my mnemonic, INFER, the underlying goal is to find out as much about your new networking partner as possible so that you can find ways to help them,

Their success is a milepost on the path to your own dreams.

Don't forget, too, that they can't help you find your dreams unless you are willing to share them. This conversation thing has to be a two-way street. For any question you ask, be prepared to have the same question asked back to you. Be willing to meet them at least halfway. And don't forget the most important question of all -- the one that makes this whole networking thing work in the long run:

"How can I help you?"

Photo by tijmen van dobbenburgh

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One-to-One Conversations: Relationships

"So, how're the wife and kids?"

OK, so if we want to bring that into the modern era, that should be "spouse" or "significant other", but still this old chestnut is the basis for one of the most powerful topics you can discuss in a networking one-to-one -- the other person's relationships.

This is the final part of my series on conversational topics during a one-to-one meeting. You can read the posts on "Interests", "Networks", "Future Focus", and "Evolution" first if you want, but it's not necessary. This series sprang from a desire to look a little more closely at the concepts embedded in the INFER system I came up with a couple of years ago. The underlying theme to all of these pieces, though, is to focus your attention on the other person and learn more about them so you can find ways to help them succeed.

Their success leads to your success.

While asking someone about the most important people in their life is powerful, for the same reasons, it's something around which we need to tread lightly You've heard the one about a mama bear protecting her cubs, right? We aren't that different.

I still remember the first time we took Kaylie out to a restaurant. We were at our favorite place, Raja Rani. We had gone there so many times in the past that the staff there pretty much all knew us and would always stop to chat when we showed up. One of the waiters greeted us at the door and seeing our little bundle of joy in her carrier reached out to touch her hand.

Something dark and primitive shifted in the back of my skull -- sleep deprivation never helps these situations, by the way. Unbeknownst to him, that young waiter came about this close to me doing bodily harm to him before I was able to re-engage the "civilization" part of my brain. It was kind of scary to realize that I had that in me.

That's the kind of deep emotion, though that makes understanding another person's relationships so important.

If you protect and nurture their family, you become family.

I've spoken with some truly great networkers and they all understand this. They look for opportunities to help someone elses children get into good schools. They help aging parents connect with services that allow them to stay in their homes. They might even find potential jobs for siblings or spouses. Heck, I'm guessing they buy a lot of Girl Scout cookies each year.

And they do it because it's the right thing to do, not because they want the other person to "owe" them.

Approach this topic carefully. Asking about the troubles their children are having isn't a "first coffee" conversation. As you get to know them, it's perfectly natural to ask about the relationships they've shared with you, but don't probe for their pain in those areas. That's something they need to bring to you. Done gently, though, connecting through their existing relationships can go a long way toward building a powerful connection between you.

And that's the point of this whole networking thing, right?

Photo by Al Bogdan

Thursday, September 6, 2012

One-to-One Conversations: Evolution

So, how do we get there from here?
"So, what do you do?"

It's the clich├ęd question that almost everyone asks at a networking event. Is it boring? Maybe. But boring works and it just might lead to a much deeper appreciation of the other person.

This is the fourth in my series on conversational topics for the one-to-one, whether it's a coffee, lunch, breakfast or what have you. You can read the prior posts (on "Interests", "Networks", and "Future Focus"), but it isn't necessary. These all stem from the INFER system that I came up with a couple of years ago. The general idea is to create moments of connection that are both memorable and useful.

So, back to the discussion of their evolution. In this case we're talking about how they got from where they were then to where they are now. What was the sequence of events, and more importantly, what were the reasons for their decisions.

About a year ago, I spoke at the Washtenaw Prisoner ReEntry for a program called "Job Club". This was a weekly meeting that returning citizens would attend to help them develop the skills they needed to become a gainfully employed, valued member of society. I was chatting with one of the gentlemen before the meeting. Carl (not his real name), as with many of the other attendees, was looking for a job.

What was different about Carl was that he specifically wanted a janitorial position. I thought it a bit curious as most of his compatriots simply wanted "a job", so I asked why. He told me that such a position would allow him to bring some order from chaos and make the world just a little better for those around him. It was a way that he could make a positive impact with his life.

You could see him stand a little straighter when he talked about his reasons.

When we ask the other person about the path they've traveled and the choices they've made, one of several things might happen:
  1. At the minimum, we move along the conversation. Asking someone about their career path is about the least intrusive way to get them to talk. Easy questions to use are:
    • How long have you been selling widgets?
    • How did you get started?
    • What do you enjoy about selling widgets?
    • What changes have you seen in the industry?
    • What's the most important thing a new widget salesperson should know?
  2. You make them the star of the movie of the week and let them be the expert. They get to talk about their favorite topic (themselves). If they've been in business for any amount of time they may have some valuable insights. Sincerely telling them that they've inspired you with something they've said could certainly go a long way toward them seeing you as someone worthy of their time and effort.
  3. You find out information that will help you recommend them to others in your network. Take the example of Carl I spoke about earlier. If I found someone in need of a janitor, I could just say "You should hire Carl. He would be a good janitor." It wouldn't be a particularly inspiring referral and probably wouldn't garner him much more attention than any other applicant. If, however, I said "Hire Carl for the position. I spoke with him not long ago and he told me that he views being a janitor as an opportunity to make the world a cleaner and better place. In his mind, it's a way he can leave a positive impact on the world." Wouldn't that leave a more remarkable impression on anyone looking to hire Carl?
Every one of us has a story about the struggles we've gone through to become who we are today. In fact, sometimes I refer to the "E" in INFER as their "Epic Journey". Learn the other person's story. You don't have to necessarily walk a mile in their shoes, but at least listen to what they tell you about the path. Not only will it bring you closer, but it may stop you from a misstep or two as well.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

One-to-One Conversations: Future Focus

Help them turn the rainbow into a bridge to their
pot of gold.
OK, be honest. You've got a dream, right? Maybe it's a new house or a new car. Maybe travel in far-off lands. Perhaps you'd like to meet your soul-mate. Wouldn't it be nice to find a genie who could make those wishes come true?

Wouldn't it be cool to be that genie?

This is the third in my series on what to talk about at the one-to-one. You can check out the details for ("Interests" and "Networks") first, if you want, but it isn't necessary. We're delving a little more deeply into the mnemonic that I came up with some time ago -- INFER -- which gives a general framework of concepts to ask your new (or even long-term) contact about so you can find ways to help them and thereby deepen and strengthen the relationship.

So, back to today's idea: The future focus.

A friend of mine, Mike Wynn, is a great networker. He is always looking out for the benefit of others. He had a dream. He wanted to own a vacation home where he and his extended family could go to relax and have fun with each other. He wanted it so his son could have closer relationships with all the cousins and have fond memories of playing with them.

Unfortunately, vacation homes can be somewhat expensive.

He started sharing his dream with his network. Not long after that, a friend told him about another friend who wanted to sell their timeshare up north. It was for three weeks  in the summer and the place was large enough to allow the cousins to come and vacation. While it wasn't exactly his dream, it accomplished the underlying reason he had that dream in the first place.

So, do you think he's grateful to the person who made that connection for him? You bet. When you connect people to their long-term goals, they want to find ways to do the same in return.

The journey to your dreams starts with the bridge you built to theirs.

These long-term visions, though, can be deeply personal things, so tread lightly. You probably don't want to ask them their lifelong goals at your first coffee -- that would be creepy. Instead, tone it down a bit and ask things like: "So what are your plans for the upcoming holiday?", "What sort of challenges do you think you'll run into in your business in the upcoming year?", or "Are you planning anything fun in the near future?" Whether they are goals they are trying to reach or obstacles they are trying to avoid, one of three things can happen:
  1. You can help immediately. You have knowledge that moves them forward. Maybe they are going on a trip to Italy and you can tell them about the little gelato shop you went to when you were there. Possibly you have a resource they could use -- they need a projector for an upcoming presentation. Or maybe they need a strong back to help them move. Whatever the situation, you have immediately at hand what they need to succeed.
  2. You can connect them with what they need. Maybe you've never been to Greece, but your sister-in-law has. Make the introduction and you still get credit for helping them create a great vacation.
  3. You can't help them right now either directly or indirectly. You can still keep a watch out for people or resources that bring them closer to their dreams. Even without that, though, just the fact that you've made yourself available as a confidant will draw them closer to you.
We often talk about the power of goals -- dreams with a deadline, right? They give us a measurement of our success and a target for which to aim. They give our efforts meaning and focus. So now imagine what power is in helping someone to connect with those visions.

Do more than imagine it. Make it happen.

Photo by Jason Wickens