We’re all in sales, whether we want to be or not. We’re selling our ideas, our career advancement, and selling others on helping us out.
Small and medium businesses are at a selling disadvantage: limited resources, people wearing multiple hats, huge pressure to grow a customer base, and worse yet, a less recognized brand name, which makes it harder to get into prospects’ doors. Networking is a critical business skill, regardless of job title, function, or industry.
Unfortunately, networking has a bad reputation. Networking can be perceived negatively because too many people who believe they are networking are actually “using” or just being opportunistic. They ask for something for themselves and then disappear. That isn’t networking. Dishing out business cards at an event isn’t networking, either.
I’ve been in sales for 30 years, have developed and led teams of hundreds, and yet I continue to be surprised by “bad form” (or no form) when it comes to networking for sales success. Why is the state of networking for sales so poor today? I have a few theories:
- Some people believe they are “natural networkers.” I don’t buy it! There are specific etiquette steps that need to be followed. Someone may be a “natural athlete,” but they still need a coach or trainer to show them proper technique to be the best.
- Technology. While tools such as LinkedIn can facilitate an improved networking process, they can actually mislead someone to believing they are networking effectively. The pendulum has swung too far to clicking online rather than truly connecting.
- Insensitivity to diversity. There are four generations in the workplace today. Not only are the generational differences great, the best networkers modulate their style to accommodate gender, cultural, and geographic differences. There is no one way.
Whatever the reason, here are five steps you can take to ensure your sales networking is world class.
1 – Have a networking goal. A goal? Of course I have a goal. It’s to sell my products or services. Well, that’s a business goal, but not a networking goal. Be sure you and your selling team knows why they are networking. Are you looking for new clients or to extend into more departments within your current account base? What is your target client? And what is NOT your target client? Can you describe each so you would recognize them if they walked in your door right now? Where do your target clients go to network, what do they read, and how do they learn new information?
Now, I’m not a hunter, but I do know it’s important to know if your goal is to aim at something that is big, brown, and growls, or has long ears and a fluffy tail. Networking goals are the same; based on the target client profile, the networking approach may differ.
For example, if you are trying to gain an introduction to the CFO of a manufacturing company, you are not going to tweet them, right? And you probably won’t waste time going to a 400-person networking event with the hopes of finding a CFO in the mix.
2 – Build a networking system…before you start! Why is it that businesses have processes for payroll, operations, human resources, and customer service, but none for networking for sales success? That seems to be managed with yellow sticky notes and smart phones. It’s no wonder that the follow-up stinks and balls are dropped.
You might have invested in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution that is usually utilized when a prospect has been identified, but not used to capture networking activities. Why is that important? Think about it: if your sales reps leave, you have nothing. More importantly, if the networking activities are not tracked, generally follow up doesn’t take place.
I recently interviewed sales reps networking at a large event. When I asked what their networking process is, they said they collected business cards, then connected with them on LinkedIn. So, they clicked “connect,” and maybe said, “It was nice meeting you last week.” Then what? Are they doing something to build a two-way relationship or just pushing this new stranger to let them deliver a pitch?
3 – Don’t be mistaken about social media: use it with good form, too. I love LinkedIn. And I use it daily for business development. However, I’ve also been the recipient of bad form, and I believe sales people are mistaken as to what social media is and isn’t.
Social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are great tools. Yes, that’s what I said: tools. They are not networking sites. LinkedIn is a powerful database. It’s a way to research a prospect, make an initial introduction, secure introductions to other people, and even see what the competition is doing. However, after that initial introduction, real networking begins with a phone conversation or face-to-face meeting. Even low cost or free web conferencing technology lets you meet someone half way around the world with your web cam.
Real networking gets out of the tools and into e-mails, conversations, a sharing of ideas, and building two-way relationships for the long term. Anything short of that is opportunistic and “using.”
4 – Be interested, not interesting. Let’s face it, most networkers talk too much. This is another reason why networking is perceived as phony. Slow it down. If you meet a potential prospect at an event, that evening is not the time to sell them, dominate their time, or become best buddies. Just like social media, events are great to make an initial introduction, and then the power is in the follow up.
Ask them questions, probe on their challenges. Don’t even share too much about what you do or what solutions you might have for them. Zip it! Take notes, too. It’s a shame how many people are embarrassed to have a small pad and pen handy to really show you are listening… and to remember what they said! Whether networking in a coffee shop, a big event, or on a web-based call, take notes. The other person will feel appreciated. And, guess what? There is no way for your brain to remember everything anyway.
5 – Be formal with every networking touch. I just got a request today from someone who addressed an e-mail with, “Hey Dana.” Now, I know in the south “hey” is like “hi.” However, networking for sales requires the highest degree of formality all the time. Eliminate phrases like hiya, let’s do coffee, can I pick your brain, and catch you later.
In social media, as in all written correspondence, use proper grammar, no abbreviations, or “text-talk” like THX. Just as in dress code, you can never be too formal.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about another pet peeve of mine: meeting in coffee shops. Why would you want to pick what has to be one of the noisiest places around to have an important business meeting? There might not even be a table available, and you waste a good portion of your meeting time waiting in line for a drink. Networkers, offer to meet in their office. Then, if they say, “Meet me at the coffee shop,” fine.
In summary, small and medium businesses need to raise the bar on their networking processes to stand out in a positive way. Have a great goal, outline a smart process, build relationships rather than connections, and be formal. After that, it’s your job to have a great value proposition to address their pain points.