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For most professionals, the dreaded ‘networking event’ sends shivers down the spine. Why? Because it tends to be a series of contrived encounters where the objective is to give out as many business cards as possible in the hope that someone will be interested and then to get out as quickly as possible. It’s only one step removed from the even more dreaded ‘cold calling’, something that gives most professionals night-mares. It seems demeaning, uncomfortable, ‘tacky’ even. It can feel like market trading, begging, touting for business and completely at odds with the idea of a ‘professional’.

We all know that building business is critical to our role in the firm, our future revenue stream, our reputation and, in order to do that, we have to increase our network and our client base. So is there a way of building a client base that doesn’t feel so uncomfortable? Could it be enjoyable, or even fun?

We would argue that the reason networking, cold calling and touting for business all feel uncomfortable is because most professionals consider it as self promotion, something fundamentally at odds with the idea of professional integrity. In the ideal world we would be recognised as masters of our craft and clients would be queuing at our door. However, whilst that may be true for one or two gurus, for most of us mere mortals our reputation and brand just aren’t at that level.

So what’s the solution? We think it comes from taking a different perspective. Instead of ‘promotion’, think ‘contribution’. If the underpinning premise of all professions is ‘helping’, why should the business development process for professionals be any different? Most professionals enjoy what they do, enjoy making a difference, enjoy helping clients. Coincidentally, our research shows the more clients feel ‘helped’, the more likely they are to ask for more assistance. If that’s true, then it’s fair to assume that an initial contribution is likely to provoke a request for an additional contribution.

If you’re going to make a contribution then, of course, you need something to contribute. If the value of that contribution is a function of each individual client situation, then it seems logical that we should start from that point. It sounds pretty straightforward and indeed it is but there are two critical success factors to the process – preparation and focus.

Try this before your next networking event:

  • Identify the sector, segment or interest area of the event
  • Research the critical issues of the moment for that sector. Find out who will be there if possible. Think about how those issues may affect them personally
  • Develop a ‘point of view’ on the potential impact and some thoughts on optional responses

With this preparation in your back pocket, you can confidently set off for the event suitably equipped. When you get there, the next challenge will be to structure the conversation. The temptation of course will be to tell everyone you meet about your excellent research and to reveal your stunning insights. It’s better than begging for business certainly but it’s still essentially about you. Our research suggests a more productive approach. Start from the perspective of ‘them’.

At the event, ask people you meet what their thoughts are on a current market issue (pick one from your research that you feel is most fitting for the individual). Develop the conversation, explore their thoughts and, when you’ve fully explored their thoughts and ideas, finally offer your perspective. Continue to explore the topic jointly (not lecture on it) and offer to follow up after the event with some more thoughts if they might be interested. Only then would I give out my business card!

The preparation is critical before you start conversations with any potential client. As my first Senior Partner told me ‘Never go to an event empty handed and never go empty headed!’ Solid advice!

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