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Professional Service Providers Must Hone Networking Skills

Networking is a key business-development tool and is often the best method of building new connections and expanding your influence in the business community.

Kristi Reale, CPA, CVA

Kristi Reale

But as professional service providers, our education and training is often focused on technical skills, leaving little or no room for soft-skills training on subjects like networking or business development. Further, networking can put many of us outside of our natural comfort zone. In the end, however, the gain is worth the pain, and by building a plan and following the tips below, your next networking experience might just be a little more enjoyable and productive.

In reality, networking should be exciting, fun, and a path toward advancement. Remember that people, not companies, make decisions; therefore, it is imperative that, as professionals, we expand our referral sources. People do business with and refer business to people they know, like, and trust. Networking allows us to expand our circle of influence and develop and cultivate new relationships. Our professional network can open doors for us that would have otherwise remained closed.

If you are new to the networking process or looking to improve your networking capabilities, the following tips may help you achieve your goals.

Plan ahead. Time is very valuable, so you want to make sure the events you attend are of good quality, with the type of people you want to do business with. You want to meet and establish relationships with other referral sources and decision makers. There are various organizations that specialize in business networking as well as industry-specific organizations. The more relevant your target audience is, the more relevant your meetings and referrals will be.

Set goals. Before you attend a networking event, do your best to set concise and attainable goals. For example, ‘I am going to speak with three people in the manufacturing industry.’ Having clear goals allows you to focus your efforts and determine success based on a measurable outcome.

Observe. If you are just getting started with business development, try to watch others closely. See how the experts are working the room. Determine if there is an experienced team member in your organization whom you can ask to take you under their wing and show you how they make connections. Not only can this be helpful in the learning process, it will also help you build a reputation within your own organization as someone focused on and committed to networking.

Be prepared. Networking opportunities can happen anywhere, often when you least expect it. You should always have your business cards readily available and be prepared to make an effective introduction of yourself and your company. Sometimes this is referred to as an elevator pitch. In less than two minutes, you should be able to introduce yourself and your company and provide a very brief explanation of what sets you apart from the competition. Get to the point quickly; you can always delve into detail later at a follow-up meeting.

Listen. When you are meeting a referral source, let them speak. People are passionate about their businesses and are usually willing to tell you about them. They will also appreciate when you take a genuine interest in what they are saying. Do not hesitate to ask open-ended questions, such as, ‘what separates you from your competition?’ This expands the conversation, shows you are engaged and sincere about learning more about their business.

Be a giver. As you are listening, you should be asking yourself, ‘how can I help this person?’ and ‘What can I do for them?’ Listen for their pains and see what relief you can offer. If their concern is outside of your expertise, whom can you recommend? By having a giving mentality and not expecting anything in return, you establish trust, while at the same time strengthening the relationship with the connection you have now recommended. This can turn into a win-win for everyone involved.

Take notes. Before leaving a networking event, take notes on the back of the business cards you received. List your topics of conversation with those individuals and any notable facts or other interesting items. This will help tremendously with follow-up. Additionally, when you take the time to remember small details about people, they appreciate it. Just as when you were in school, retention comes from taking good notes.

Be patient. When networking, you need to think long-term; networking is much more than an exchange of business cards or connecting on social media. Just as with a personal relationship, it takes time to establish trust. The point is to make long-lasting valuable relationships that are mutually beneficial to both parties. Having connections can open doors, but relationships can close deals.

Follow up. Hold yourself accountable; having a pile of business cards is not going to make relationships. Follow up with either a personalized e-mail or telephone call, and make sure you mention something you discussed at the event. Invite this person to lunch or for coffee. If you are reading a publication and see an article that would interest them, forward it. This shows you are sincerely interested in their business and in building a relationship.

Be prepared for rejection. Not every connection made when networking will turn into a relationship. You will have e-mails and telephone calls ignored, meetings cancelled and, inevitably, people who forgot they even met you. Keep this in mind: it is better to strike out then never get up to bat, and if you keep trying, you will eventually knock it out of the park.

By preparing for a networking event, having a plan, executing the plan, and following up, you will inevitably find more success in your professional networking efforts. Remember that people, not companies, make decisions, and people do business with and refer business to people they know, like, and trust.

Kristi Reale, CPA, CVA is a senior manager with Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. in Holyoke. In addition to the tax, accounting, and consulting services she provides clients, she is also a certified valuation analyst; (413) 536-8510.

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