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A networking case study – (spoiler alert… it works!)

Let me start by doing you a favour. If you’re time-poor or not in the mood to read a long Post, here’s the summary:·    

    Networking worked for me and the business I represented
·        I went in with a plan
·        I knew what I was going to say well before I stood up at each meeting and that ‘story’ wasn’t necessarily the same each time.
·        The Law of Reciprocity is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago when I attended my first Chamber of Commerce meeting.
·        Following up works and is time well spent.
·        IT TAKES TIME! This is neither a quick fix nor a source of instance results.  

Now, if you’d like some detail, please read on.
Networking – Def’n : “An expensive exercise that results in a lot of bacon and eggs breakfasts being added to your diet “.
If that’s been your experience, I can promise that you’re not alone. Networking, when done badly, can be a depressing and costly experience, both in money and time. 

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel though. If Networking is managed and planned – just like your other business activities – it can be an important driver of growth and success. 

I can hear you now. “Yep, been there – done that” or “I tried it – didn’t work!” Hopefully though, there are many of you reading this who, like myself, have seen the benefits of having a structured approach to Networking and have had success as a result.

Here’s a first-hand example (call it a Case Study, if you like) of what can be achieved with a structured, planned approach. I’m not going to write a ‘how to’ for Networking here. There are plenty of people who can provide that for you here in LinkedIn.  This is more about “Here’s what I did and hope it’s helpful “.

Try before you buy.
There are multiple options available to Networkers in most regions of Australia. My own choice came down to:
·        7 different Chambers of Commerce
·        3 BNI Chapters
·        3 other structured Networking organisations with up to 3 Groups in the local region.

While my previous experience in the region gave me some insight and few contacts, which meant I wasn’t going in ‘cold’ to some relationships, that’s not necessarily a benefit in all cases. I found that I spent the first few minutes of face to face discussions explaining where I’d been and what had happened in the past couple of years and then having to listen while the other person told me everything that was wrong with my old employer since I’d left there. 

What I did have, however, was a reasonable expectation and knowledge that membership of Networking groups and business chambers will wax and wane over time.  A little research showed that there were one or two key Chambers of Commerce in the region and that’s where my time was best focussed.

Likewise, a bit of research into memberships/attendees at Networking groups like BNI etc., gave me a priority list to work with.

The key points out of this process were:
·        I joined my local Chamber of Commerce in the first instance and chose two others where the membership seemed to be dynamic, proactive and well-connected. There was a fair amount of membership crossover between these Chambers and other Networking groups in the area as well.
·        Most Networking organisations welcome visitors and, while their approach and structure may vary, you can generally attend twice without needing to join and can get a feel for the potential and “fit” for your business.  I went to as many as I could and, as many meet fortnightly, this took nearly 3 months to complete the process. 

Go with a plan
First question, before you visit or even consider signing up as a member for any other these is:
“What do I want to get out of this?”

 In my case, I was representing a local charity and, despite having been founded 8 years earlier, there was almost zero brand awareness with SME’s in the region. I needed to meet people who would give me 30 minutes of their time later to tell them about the charity and ask them to support us. That ‘ask’ varied, depending on the ability and potential of each business.

The secondary aim was to build an army of advocates and this required a confidence and trust building program that takes time – so Networking needed commitment and a real focus on the Law of Reciprocity. In every conversation I had I’d be thinking: “Do I know someone who can help this person or could benefit from their skills and experience?
I found that I ended up disposing of about 1/3rd of the business cards I collected in my first 6 months, all of which were handed to me in conversations, rather than me taking them from a tray etc. 

Get you story right!
My 30-40-60 second Elevator Pitch changed over time but it was an evolving process, not a sudden change from week to week/meeting to meeting. As I learnt what other people needed to hear about the charity I represented, I tailored to story to suit the audience. 

If I was attending as a ‘newbie’, for example, it was a straight “this is who we are and this is what we do”. Very succinct and to the point. Once some relationships and a brand/profile had been established I was able to talk about a forthcoming event or a specific case where “this is what we did with the money we raised” became the focus. Better still, “this is what the recipients did with the funds we gave them” because more powerful once the brand/profile was in their minds.

Follow Up!
Goes without saying, right? The quality of the follow-up is important though. While I’ve been caught out occasionally when I forget that LinkedIn will send a ‘default’ message if you’re not careful, writing a specific, personal message to each new contact was vital. The same goes for an email follow-up. It’s a matter of seconds, rather than minutes in most cases and well worth the effort.

Likewise, I didn’t wait for the other person to contact me for that coffee chat or meeting. And, just like the Elevator Pitch changed over time, so did the discussions in these one on one meetings. In the early months, a lot of time was spent talking about “this is who we are/what we do” and, once some rapport was built over time, later meetings focused more on “this is what we can do to help each other”. 

Deliver on that promise!
It’s not just about following up with a promise you make to an individual. I did my best to attend each and every meeting. In some cases, a decision had to be made when different organisations/groups had meetings or events that conflicted but, when sending the RSVP or apology, it was important to say why you weren’t attending. And I wasn’t afraid to say that I was attending another group or event if there was a clash – people talk and it’s better to be honest.

Invest the time
A leader at one of the networking groups (a health professional) told me that it was 6 months before he got his first referral from the group. In another group, one of the ‘champions’ told us that she received all of her new business via referrals from her networking efforts. 

No-one gained instant success and, in my case, it was around the 7-month mark before I’d say that I hit a break-even point where time and money spent was matched by results. The growth in support and income kicked up from there however and we gained a number of supporters and contributors after 12 months and, most importantly, a small army of advocates for our charity amongst the local SME sector.

Personally, I went in knowing that Networking would work for me if I did it right. While representing a charity gave me some access that I would have had to pay for otherwise, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have had more success if it was my own business I was representing. Also, there’s no way I would have been given those opportunities if I hadn’t delivered on my promises (made sure I turned up when substituting for a member, for example). The reciprocity was very one-sided and meant that I had to work a lot harder to build those relationships and trust.
I’m leaving this charity role soon and will be moving overseas. My first step, when establishing a business in another country in the future will be to seek out local networking groups and go through the process above all over again. Looking forward to both the challenge and the results.

Posted on November 15, 2017

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