By Will Kintish, Business Networking Skills And LinkedIn Authority

A good networker asks questions like:

- How did you get started?

- How long have you been in business?

- Where do you see your industry going?

- How do you think technology will affect things?

- What challenges do you see facing your industry in the next few years?

- What is your customer market?

- How do you promote your company?

- In the news recently it mentioned... How do you see this affecting you?

- How many people do you work with?

- Their relationship with their existing advisors or suppliers

Come on now, what do you really want to know? If you have spotted that this person is in your market and is a potential client you want to know who their present advisors or suppliers are and when they’ll be ready to move over to you! Can’t be more blunt than that.

But as we all now know it just isn’t quite that easy. We have to ask the core questions but camouflage them in ribbons and bow questions. So let me give you some key questions to consider.

The conversation is between Priscilla who runs a printing company employing 50 people and the employment law solicitor called Joe.

Joe has ascertained all about Priscilla’s business, found out that it’s growing and they are even on the acquisition trail if the right deal comes up. She knows Joe is a solicitor. Let’s earwig.

“So, Priscilla, do you find you have a need for solicitors?”

“Yes, Joe we seem to have to being using them quite a lot these days. You know how the world is becoming more litigious.”

“You’re so right, Priscilla. What do you generally use them for?”

“Well, we use them for debt collection, disputes on copyright occasionally, oh, and employment law issues.”

--- (WAIT! Keep your powder dry, don’t get out your Letter of Engagement yet, there’s a long way to go) ---

“ So, who is it you use at the moment?”

“ We use Matiss & Dock.”

“I know, they have office on Tent Street.”

“That’s right.”

--- The next few questions are critical ---

“How long have you been with them?”

“Oh about 4 years”

--- The next question is the absolute kernel to the whole conversation ---

“How do you find them?”

--- At this point in the conversation please ensure all your senses are finely tuned. I generalise when I say we are not great listeners but if ever you are going to listen hard, now is the time. Not just listen, but also look, I might add.

Anyone can lie with words but few can do it with their tone of voice and their body language. That’s the reason I’m asking you to listen and look. Use eye contact to its best advantage.

Asking this open and leading question will elicit one of three responses: good, bad or indifferent. Please don’t ask “Are they any good?”. You don’t want to put the other person on the spot. If they aren’t too happy they will still probably not give you a negative. They don’t want to admit they are making a mistake using these people.

Let’s go back to the conversation ---

“They’re OK I suppose”

--- If the tone of voice is neutral get your radar working.
If you get a neutral answer or their answer is incongruent with their negative body language ask, ---

“What is it they do particularly well for your company?”

--- That puts them on the spot but keeps it light and positive ---

“Well they’re not bad at the debt collection but we've had some real issues with our Contracts of Employment recently.”

--- At this moment you would do well to keep very quiet but ask ‘the why’ using your eyes rather than your mouth. If nothing is forthcoming you might ask, “Would you be happy to share what sort of issues?”

Another useful question when you hear a neutral or a negative is

“What is it you’re looking for in a firm of solicitors?”

These few moments are critical so do ask these questions in a gentle and casual style.

The above covers situations where the person is neutral or negative. If they say they are fantastic, fine, but even now there are a few more probing questions to come. Ask who they work with at the firm, what they specifically like about them and what services they provide. Even if there is nothing in it NOW you are finding out about the strengths of your competitors. And, as you’ll hear later, nothing is ever forever. When you make a good impression you surely must be on the substitute’s bench. Oh no, not another sporting analogy!

If Priscilla really begin to complain about her lawyers gently, and I stress gently, probe:

“Where do you think they are going wrong?”, “How much do you think you should be paying?”, “How many more times in a year do you think they should be in touch?”

Knowing the answer to these questions will ensure you will deal with these issues in the correct manner should Priscilla the prospect become Priscilla the client.

If Priscilla is showing interest, needless to say do talk about what you can offer. But please talk only in terms of what is in it for her. Don’t bother telling her you are the fourth biggest solicitors in town, you have 217 partners, 6 offices in the UK and oh, we do have a posh office on Madison Avenue, New York.

She doesn’t care. Talk to her about her issue and how you believe you can sort it. If it’s not your area of expertise, take care. Not a great idea suggesting “I’ll get John my partner to call you on Monday about that, it’s not my bag”. It’s you she is buying at the moment. John’s a stranger, just a name on the end of your tongue. We will cover this handover later.

Keep asking questions like "if I was able to sort that issue for you what difference would it make?", "What is the decision making process in your company?", "What timescales do you have to sort out this project?"

When you have got enough information you will need to pick the appropriate moment to move to the follow up process.

Back to the Small Talk

This is the hardest part. You’ve got the bit between your teeth, the target is right there in your sights but I’m asking you to go back to the small talk! Unless, of course, your new contact is begging to do business with you at that moment. It can happen sometimes but you have to be pretty lucky.

Yes, the small talk because otherwise you’ll go into selling mode. We’re here to build relationships not sell...yet. Be patient we cover the follow up soon.

The author of this article is Will Kintish, leading UK authority on effective and confident networking both offline and online. If you’d like Will to speak at your conference or training workshops, call him on 0161 773 3727. Visit www.kintish.co.uk and www.linkedintraining.co.uk for further free and valuable information on all aspects of networking.