By Heather Townsend

Andy Lopata and I met up recently and started chewing the cud about networking, selling, relationships and other such stuff which seem to excite networking experts like us. (I know, we need to get out more!) As a result, of our conversation, Andy agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

Heather Townsend: My clients all want to know how to go from networking to selling?

Andy Lopata: The most important thing is to separate the two activities. If you go to networking events to sell, or if you simply try to sell to your network, you will alienate people. Your networking activities should be focused on relationship-building.

The key to successful networking is to sell through the people you meet, rather than to them. People will refer you if they trust you, understand what you do and are speaking to the right people. Trust and understanding develop over time, so that’s why the relationship is so important. Focus on that though and you can reap tremendous rewards over time.

My philosophy is that I would rather you refer me five times than buy from me once. After all, other things remaining equal, that will produce a much more powerful return for my business.

Besides, if you trust me enough to refer me and understand what I do and who I do it for, who else would you buy from if you needed my services yourself?

HT: So, what do you actually mean by strategic networking?

AL: I used to be the Managing Director of a national business network (BRX). Many of our members originally came along to events because they were invited and joined because they liked the buzz. They clearly hadn’t planned for the outcome of their membership, nor had a clear idea of the return on investment they needed to justify it. The lack of planning was reflected in the way they approached meetings and, subsequently, in the lack of a strong return on their membership.

My frustration at so many wasted opportunities led to me speaking and writing about networking strategy. Put simply, with tens of thousands of networking opportunities to choose from, both online and face to face, what are the chances that the one you have been invited to is the right one for you? And even if it is, what are the chances of maximising the potential from that network if you don’t focus on why you are there and what you need to input to get the ideal results?

Strategic networking is about focusing on your challenges first and asking how other people can help you overcome them, rather than joining a network and then wondering how it might help.

HT: What big mistakes do you see people making with their strategic networking?

AL: Number one is not having a strategy at all!
Once that strategy is in place, many people turn first of all to networking groups and networking sites. While networking opportunities such as these are incredibly valuable, you should always look to your existing network for support first. After all, if you are surrounded by people who would be willing to help you if asked, why turn your back on them and ask strangers instead?

People also go straight into ‘transactional’ and broadcast mode as soon as they enter a networking environment. They try to sell and try to get across everything they offer as soon as they meet people or join a site online.
It’s far more important to be relational and to engage with people, as discussed previously.

HT: What happens if you meet a prospect when networking?

AL: Bite your tongue! It is so frustrating, and it does happen to me a lot. I always remind myself of the philosophy of preferring people to refer me five times than buy from me once. If I get to know them and build a relationship with strong trust and understanding, then I hope that they will recognise their own need for my services and choose to buy.

This is a general rule, however. If someone clearly shows an interest in what you do and they share buying signals, then there’s no reason not to pursue that. But make sure that they are genuinely interested and perhaps take the conversation elsewhere, by scheduling a meeting after the event. And still focus on building a relationship as well as completing the sale.

As a general rule, however, it is worth bearing in mind that most people do not go to a networking event to be sold to. Irrespective of whether someone is an ideal prospect for you or not, respect that and respect their time.

HT: How do you prospect when networking without selling?

AL: Have a clear idea in your mind of to whom you want to be introduced to and who influences those people. Then go out and build relationships.

As people get to know and like you, they need to know how to connect you and to whom to speak about you. If you communicate clearly the help and connections you’re looking for, you’ll make it much easier for them to do so. If you know who the people in your network know, you can target the right message to the right people, and ask for the appropriate help.

How well does your network understand what you do and who you do it for? While you are reading this article, how many people you know are sat opposite the people you want to sell to, but don’t recognise it?

It’s so easy to spent hours seeking out our prospects through networking events and sites while all the time there are colleagues who would happily refer us sitting opposite the very people we want to meet.

Build trust, develop understanding and then ask for connections. Follow that route and you’ll achieve more and better sales than if you pitched to everyone you meet.

Labelled ‘Mr Network’ by The Sun, Andy Lopata was called one of Europe’s leading business networking strategists by the Financial Times. The coauthor of two books on networking, Andy’s third book, Recommended: How to Sell Through Networking and Referrals, was published by Financial Times Prentice Hall in late July.

Heather Townsend is a performance improvement specialist for professional services, widely published writer and social media expert. Over the past decade, Heather has worked with more than one hundred partners, coached and trained over 1000 lawyers, accountants and other professionals at every level, within the UK’s leading and most ambitious professional practices. She is one of the UK’s foremost experts on how business people can build meaningful and profitable relationships via social media and is the author of the Financial Times Guide To Business Networking

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