Maximize your profits through networking

Published: February 8th, 2006

Have you ever admired (or perhaps secretly envied) those successful sales people who seem to have it all?

They talk confidently with their bosses and peers. They’re as comfortable with their clients’ executive teams as they are with the people who use their products on the front lines. And they always know exactly what to say at every turn.

How did they get that way?

Through active networking

Many sales reps and managers complain that they can’t create a consistent flow of revenues or commissions month after month. Instead of a nice, straight line increasing consistently over time like an upwards pointing arrow, they find themselves staring repeatedly at sales results that look more like a hockey stick: nothing for two months, a sharp increase for a month or two, and then back down again to nothing a month later.

How can they keep their sales funnels full of leads, to ensure a consistent, reliable flow of revenues all year round?

Through active networking

The fact is, if you’re in sales, there’s no avoiding networking. As salespeople, we’ve all been taught that networking is an effective way to meet new contacts and develop business. We’re told to go to events, attend trade shows, and participate in business conferences and luncheons, all with the intention of meeting new prospects, engaging with existing customers and developing new sources of referrals.

In my experience, however, hardly any salespeople know what to do when they actually get to these all-important events. During our workshops, more and more people are asking questions like:

What do I say when I get there?

Should I ask for a card?

When should I give them my card?

How do I remember their name?

What do I do when I get back to the office?

How do I turn the conversation to business?

How do I escape from a useless or annoying conversation?

How do I enter into a conversation that’s already in progress?

Who should I approach?

It’s one thing to show up at an event. It’s another thing entirely to emerge from it with a list of names, or the beginning of a series of potentially profitable relationships.

Do your homework before you go

Regardless of the type or size of the event, doing some simple preparation before you go will work miracles to improve your results once you’re there. The following are some examples of the kind of “homework” you can do to improve your success rate at your next networking opportunity:

Find out what the event is about, what the audience will be like and who the speaker is. Be prepared to talk about the event to anyone you meet. And take an interest in what the event is all about! If you’re excited about the event, it will encourage others to attend as well. The more people that turn up, the better it is for everyone!

Make a list of some current clients and contacts who might be at the meeting, and send them a quick e-mail a couple of days before to let them know you’re going, and to ask if you’ll see them there. If it’s someone you haven’t seen in a while, let them know that you’re looking forward to catching up.

Make a list of prospects you suspect will be at the event who you want to meet. Think of ways to find common ground with them, and devise an opening question that you can ask when you meet them. Try also to think of a connection you can give them, which could be of benefit to them.

For example, if you know that your client is looking for new resellers for an upcoming product launch, and one of your target prospects is a reseller, you could give them a referral, or even introduce them if both parties are at the same show. Remember, sales are all about building relationships. This referral will show both the prospect and your customer that you’re a sales person who is interested in building a relationship with them – not just making a sale.

If you have a list of attendees who will be at the event, double check to see if a company you’re interested in is registered for the event, and make note of their contact information. If you’re going to a trade show or convention, I even suggest that you call your target prospects in advance to set up a meeting with them during the show.

It’s also a great idea to set up meetings with your current clients, by inviting them to come to your booth at a specific time so that you can reconnect. This gives you an easy way to stay in touch, plus it has the added bonus of making your booth look more popular, which will help attract more new people to come see what the fuss is all about.

While we’re on the subject of trade shows, why not advertise that you’ll be at the event in your e-mail signature tag line?

No need to get complicated – something as simple as “Be sure to visit Engage at the SMEI Conference September 21-23 in Shreveport, Louisiana” should suffice.

As well, check your database for contacts in the area where the conference or event is being located. You may find that you know people who live nearby who won’t be at the event, and you can make an appointment to re-connect with them, too.

I always make a habit of staying an extra day or going one day early to reconnect with those contacts and conduct some sales calls in the area. Your contacts will take advantage of the fact that you’re in town, especially if you’re located far from the event area, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your schedule will fill up. The only cost is an extra day of travel, and the profits will pay off in spades.

Study the conference guide before you get to the event and choose which sessions you’ll be attending in advance. This will give you time to research the speakers for each of the topics, allow you to formulate some intelligent questions to ask and give you something to talk about with the other attendees afterwards.

I often find that the first thing people ask me at a conference is what session I’m attending. If you don’t know the answer, the conversation can dry up pretty quickly. On the other hand, if it turns out that you’re both going to the same session, you’ll have something in common to chat about later. As an added bonus, if the person you’re talking to already knows something about the topic of the session, they might refer you to their network or offer a solution to your problem.

If you’re going to a small event like a breakfast, luncheon or dinner, take a few minutes to review the outline of the meeting and the bio of the speaker. Formulate a couple of relevant questions you can ask during the Q&A session, to increase your expert status and encourage others to approach you.

Set a goal for the event. How many people do you want to meet? Who do you want to meet? How many referrals or introductions do you want to make?

Be realistic about your goals. If this is your first time attending a particular lunch event, for example, a goal of coming away with five cards may be more realistic than 20. If you’re attending a trade show in your biggest target market with 5000 attendees, perhaps 200 cards is reasonable.

Write your goals down, and leave them in the office so you can check back on how you did after the event. Having these goals established before you attend the event will also ensure that you’re using your time productively, help you decide whether the event is a profitable one for you – and help you determine whether to attend it regularly.

Finally, be prepared to answer the most popular networking question of all: “So, what do you do?” Although you might think telling a prospect that you’re a computer/financial/hotel/printing sales person is enough, those people who don’t work in your industry might not understand what you mean. When they don’t understand, they’re less likely to say those four magic words: “Interesting, tell me more.”

To beef up your description, try tossing in some interesting facts about what you do or how you help people. Give them a “for example” of a relevant, real life story. Keep it short, because the idea is to get them talking by asking your questions, not answering theirs. In fact, most smart sales people prepare and rehearse the answer to the “what do you do” question in advance so that they’ll be able to transition smoothly into a conversation where both parties are engaged.

This series continues in March.

Colleen Francis is a certified sales professional advisor. You can catch her on the Web at www.engageselling.com.