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How to Network and Sell in a Social Setting

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What is it about person-to-person networking that can be so infuriating?  Everything I read says that mingling at business-related events will lead to more business opportunities.

Unfortunately, many of these events are filled with salespeople just like me.  The ritual seldom varies: when I tell them about my company they say “give me your business card and I’ll pass it along to the right person.”  Raise your hand if you have heard this, too, and have dutifully given your card.  Is your experience like mine? When I follow up with the right person they have no idea who I am or why I am contacting them, which can be an embarrassing way to begin with a prospective client.

When I am looking to grow my business I go where the decision-makers are.

Changing the Approach on How to Network

I had almost totally given up on networking when I decided to try a different tack.  Instead of going to events that I knew would be filled with other salespeople (I’m looking at you Chamber of Commerce, Anytown, USA), I now focus on opportunities to get in front of the ultimate decision makers: C-level managers and business owners.  Instead of rolling in when the room is nearly full, I am now often one of the first people there.  This gives me a chance to look at name tags (if they are laid out) so I can see who will be attending, and, as those people arrive I will be ready to engage.

I don’t eat or drink when I am working because I think it is sloppy to ask for an executive’s consideration holding a plate of food or offering a hand that’s greasy from eating chicken wings.

Making an Impression with Decision-Makers

When I have their attention, I introduce myself and ask them something specific to their industry, why they are at the event, or make other conversation in a business vein.  From my telephone calls with people with “C” in their title, I know that they don’t want to talk about how they are today and what they think about this hot/rainy/cold (fill-in-the blank) weather.

Once I feel that they are focused on me, I give a very short description of what our company does.  I don’t use sales phrases like “we have a proven track record of success in your industry” or “our clients rave about how much money we save them.”  I simply describe what we do and then ask if I can call them to talk further.  Usually they are surprised by this direct approach and often say yes or, at the very least, give me the name of another person to call.  I don’t ask probing questions or try to qualify them.  Because I have done my homework ahead of time I have already decided that their business is a potential fit.

If I call someone they referred to me I introduce myself by saying “I saw George at the business event earlier this week and he said that you are the person I need to call.”  If you doubt the potential of this approach I’d like to boast for a moment:  my company has a great contract with a company that started with me walking up to the owner at a business holiday party.

In the beginning I was terrified to approach business executives and pose this direct question.  What I have found is that they appreciate how I am mindful of their time and don’t talk their ear off.  If they agree to take my call I send a followup email the next day suggesting times in the next two weeks.  Sometimes they use this as an opportunity to disengage from the process, and that’s OK because the next time I see them I will ask if the timing is better for a conversation.  Surprisingly, I am able to schedule a call with them more often than not.

Now that you know my secrets you must be curious about where to engage with decision-makers.  Business journals around the country sponsor events throughout the year that are perfect for this approach. Best Places to Work, 40 under 40 and Business Growth Awards are some examples.  Also, look for local awards events based around a person or concept.  For example, in Vermont, our Businesses for Social Responsibility (a great organization that focuses on people, planet, and profit) gives an annual award to the person who exemplifies a strong commitment to the environment and workplace.  Look around your community for events that typically attract business owners and managers, and prepare for short, meaningful conversations.

I will always enjoy attending a variety of networking events because I love a party.  But when I am looking to grow my business, I go where the decision-makers are.

-Dawn McGinnis is the Business Development & Marketing Coordinator at NPI Technology Management in Burlington.

*This post was originally published on LinkedIn.