By Andy Lopata, Business Networking Strategist

Many businesses struggle to understand how to sell to people in their network when the perceived wisdom (emphasised by people such as me) tells you not to.

This topic came up in both sessions I ran for The Academy for Chief Executives (ACE) in the South West recently. Many companies see networking events as a sales opportunity, yet struggle to achieve a positive return from such events. That's not surprising when everyone else is also there to sell. The key to success is to build and develop relationships with people who will then refer and support you, rather than seeing each person you meet as a prospect.

Sell through the people you network with, not to them. After all, I'd rather someone refer me ten times than buy from me once.

Similarly, I asked members to look at their personal networks and those of their staff to understand the extent of their potential reach and the connections available to them. Many people feel uncomfortable about this, understandably so. That discomfort, however, often comes more from concerns about doing business direct with friends and family, rather than simply asking for help, advice or introductions.

I then had a visit to the dentist that same week. I'd like to say we talked about networking and business generation but that would, as you can probably guess, be an exaggeration. In truth, he talked about networking and business generation while I grunted some affirmations and tried to stock up the insightful replies I was itching to share when I could actually speak again.

My dentist has branched out and now supplies a range of treatments; from those you might expect from your dentist (such as teeth whitening) to those you may not (botox injections). He has posters and leaflets around the surgery to advise patients about the range of services available, but still most don't know about many of them.

He is in a tough position. People don't go to their dentist and expect to be sold to. Most of us want to go as rarely as possible, be told that we don't need to have any work done and then not come back for six months. While dentists have their patients in a position many salesmen would gladly jump at, they will lose customers and reputation at a record rate if they use that time to sell.

It's the same for anyone we consider to be a 'trusted advisor'. Solicitors and accountants share the same problem where their clients do not expect, or appreciate, being sold to.

In fact, one of the members of ACE described the British as a 'nation of buyers who don't like being sold to'. Whether you are looking after someone's health, advising them on a legal matter, sharing a drink with a friend or in conversation at a networking event, the chances are good that you don't want to be sold to.

So don't try to sell to your network. Instead, build the relationship so that they trust you. Ensure that they understand what you do, who you do it for and why that person or business benefits as a result. Inspire them to want to help you and to advocate you to others.

If you get the relationship right and your message is easily understood, your clients, family, friends and networking associates will happily refer you. And if they recognise that they struggle from the problems you can resolve, they'll happily buy from you too.

Help people make the decision to come to you, rather than pushing your products or services at them. It will feel more natural, more comfortable and they will be more committed to the purchase.

People don't like to be sold to but they do like to buy. Carry that approach into networking for a greater return on your activity.

To find out more about how to pick the right networks, implement a successful networking strategy or how to generate more referrals, please visit our website www.lopata.co.uk or contact us at harvey@lopata.co.uk / 01992 450488.

Join us on