By Steph Cutler
When I set up my first business I knew the importance of networking but knew very little else! My inexperience and lack of knowledge, coupled with my disability made my attempts hit and miss, heavy on the miss! I found networking events really difficult initially and my sight loss did not help. I would now go as far as to say that I am better at it than many of my sighted counterparts these days.
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers and different disabilities pose different challenges. However, a disability need not always be a barrier and can sometimes be turned into an advantage.
It is worth remembering that few people are natural networkers and most people need to prepare and practice.Before you begin any kind of networking it is important to understand that networking is about building relationships and not direct selling and more about giving than receiving.
I used to think that if I didn’t leave a networking event with someone prepared to book my services then my time had been wasted and I had failed. Once I understood the principle of building relationships with potential clients then the pressure eased and I began to create real opportunities for my business.
Here are my top tips on getting networking working:
1. You Are Your Business
Remember, people do business with people they know, like and trust; people are often buying into you rather than into your business. You are likely to be the person they deal with so you need to think carefully how you present yourself.
2. Six Degrees of Separation
‘Six degrees of separation’ is the notion that we are all just six steps away from anyone else in the world. It’s been estimated we all know about 250 other people.
Following this notion, everyone you meet knows other people and through getting to know them you are opening up the opportunity to meet the people they know.
I started my disability business without a single contact in the field of disability. When I thought about it I decided I must surely know at least one person. I gave it some further thought and I did know someone …..I knew my consultant and so I contacted him and he became my first client!
3. Attending Networking Events
Attending with a friend or a support worker may help the nerves but avoid the temptation to just chat with them, you can do this anytime. Discuss with a support worker before attending how you would like their support and consider how you will introduce them.
Keep your business cards to hand and in a professional wallet. Don’t circulate the room handing them out to everyone. The only thing you will be known for is being the person to avoid!
Get the contact details from anyone you would like to keep in touch with, even if they haven’t got a business card. Don’t rely on them calling you, even if they promise they will.
Ideally you will go home with a number of business cards. It is a good idea to jot on the back where and when you met the person and a couple of key words about them or their service. Believe me, you will be glad of this after some time has passed and your memory has faded. It also makes getting back in touch with someone easier if you can relate to a previous conversation or common interest.
I find speaking at networking events is a great way of making sure everyone in the room leaves knowing about me and my business. I have a captive audience and everyone comes to me when I’ve finidhed! If you are prepared to speak at an event, it is often possible for information about you and your business to be included in the marketing of the event and available on the day. This in itself is great free marketing that someone else does for you!
Consider also what suits you. Family commitments or your disability may make certain times of day preferable. I stopped attending breakfast events as I do not function well at 7am and the lack of public transport was a problem.
One of the difficulties I have is knowing who is in the room as I can’t se the delegate list or name badges. I ask the organiser for the delegate list in advance, I identify a couple of people I want to meet and I ask the organiser to introduce me on the day.
4. What Can You Do For The People You Meet?
You should be thinking as much about what you can offer other people, as what you can get from them. If you seem to be in it just for what you can get you will not endear yourself to others.
5. Breaking the Ice
It can be hard to instigate conversations but remember that is what you are there to do. Walk over to someone standing by themselves, smile, extend your hand and introduce yourself. You will look confident and they will be grateful.
Consider asking a general question at first such as, ‘have you been to this event before?’ You may wish to avoid asking what they do as a first question as it may look like you are networking a bit too hard.
People like to talk about themselves and they tend to like people who allow them to do this. The benefits are two-fold; you are showing an interest and you are also gaining a good picture of what they do and what you may be able to do for them.
When approaching a group you may need to be bold and when there’s a pause say, ‘may I join you?’ Everyone is there to meet other people so no one is going to say ‘no’.
6. “So What Do You Do?”
You know you will be asked this question so you must consider your response. Prepare by writing down all the problems you help people with and the benefits you provide. This may be; saving them money, increasing their client base, providing peace of mind or saving them time.
The approach many people take is to simply say their job title such as, ‘I’m an accountant’. This approach is largely ineffective because most people will think they know what you do. Unless they require an accountant they won’t see the need to ask you anything further. Also you are not presenting yourself as an individual or selling the benefits of what you do. A better response, knowing the event is attended by small business owners, is ‘I help busy business owners keep on top of their bookkeeping so they can spend more time running their businesses’.
7. Moving On
It can be difficult when you want to move on from talking to one person. Even if you are talking to someone really interesting you should move on to talk to others.
I find saying something like, ‘Great to talk to you, there is one or two other people I want to try to speak to. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just see if I can find them’ seems to work.
Alternatively, you can say, ‘Shall we see who else is here’, and take that person with you to join another group.
8. Following Up
An important part of networking is the follow-up. There is no point in networking with people if you are not going to keep in touch with them.
Having established what the other person’s interests are, you may like to offer to send an article on a holiday destination you had talked about or a link to a work-related website. Usually people will be quite happy to receive something like that because it’s of use to them and not just your marketing material. You are offering them something of value and it gives you a reason to contact them again to follow-up.
If you want to follow-up with someone it’s often best to send an email saying, ‘Good to meet you yesterday. I enjoyed our chat and I hope to see you again at the next meeting’. This in itself will help to move the relationship forward, it shows you remember them and have made an effort. Ideally refer back to something you talked about to distinguish yourself from everyone else.
A solicitor I know is aware she is often not the only solicitor at events but she is pretty sure that she is the only one with a guide dog. She is conscious not to play to her disability, but when she follows up the next day by phone she will sometimes say, ‘It’s Sarah, the one with the labrador in tow, nice to meet you yesterday!’ She finds this breaks the ice and reminds the person who she is.
Remember the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory…. askpeople you meet if they know other people who might be interested in what you do. You need to give them enough information so that, if they come across someone that you could work with, they will recognise that they can connect you. Offer this in return.
Consider sending a thank you card if you receive a contract off the back of a referral.
10. Review Your Progress
Look back at what seemed to go well, and what didn’t. Try different approaches and see what works for you. If you are prepared to put the work in and be patient your business will reap the benefits.
Steph Cutler had a successful career in the fashion industry when she experienced unexpected sight loss. Determined from the start, she began adapting to her new challenges. This led her to take a new direction and she ventured into self-employment.
Steph is now a business start-up coach and runs workshops providing disabled people with the confidence and courage to consider self-employment or to grow an existing business. She is also a popular inspirational speaker at business events.
Follow Steph’s blog at http://making-lemonade.co.uk
© Steph Cutler 2010