Networking is an integral part of building your accounting practice and book of business. As you probably already know, it helps build your personal brand, provides a source of potential leads and referrals, and well, you’re expected to do it.
But suppose I told you that you have been doing this networking thing wrong the whole time? That in your stacks of business cards there could be a potential goldmine of business opportunities you may have overlooked. Upon reflection, you may ask yourself, “How did I miss that? Where did I go wrong?”
The answer to this may be quite simple. If you are attending an event and evaluating the person in front of you as either as prospect or not, you may have already missed the mark.
Why? Because the objective of attending a networking event should be to, wait for it… network.
As a business development coach and trainer, my accounting clients often tell me they do not see the benefits of networking events because they are always full of sales people and there are never any viable prospects. After all, there are not a lot of multimillion-dollar companies popping up out of nowhere looking for a new accounting firm. This is the point where I remind them that the purpose of a networking event is not to meet new clients, but to meet the individuals who can introduce you to them.
Networking, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions.” The information we seek to exchange when networking is “who do you know,” “do you have any contacts at the types of companies that I do business with,” and “would you be so kind as to introduce me to someone who does?”
Most accounting professionals understand that networking can be an effective tool in their business development arsenal. It enables them to meet like-minded individuals and ultimately drive more business and revenue. We also know there are many different types of networking activities to try. For example, there’s networking with existing “friendlies”—or “the breakfast club” as I like to call them—or attending networking groups with formalized meeting structures that meet on a regular basis. For the purposes of this article we are going to focus on networking events, those events where you usually find all fishermen and no fish.
Some people are programmed to enjoy these types of events where they get out of the office and get to meet some new people. However, if you’re more like many of the rest of us, these events are often viewed as a necessary evil that you must endure because the firm leadership expects you to. Sure, networking events can be great, but more often than not we end up coming back with a stack of business cards full of people we will never do business with.
While attending a networking event, the key is to look for people to Network with, as opposed to looking for future clients. In fact, networking is the whole point of a networking event! Even the most seasoned networkers can fall into the trap of looking for prospects when attending events. Keep in mind that while the person standing in front of you with a napkin wrapped around a sweating imported beer may not be the ideal client, they could however be a potential doorway to a great network of opportunities.
Business networks grow exponentially as we meet new people. When you meet one new person you are not only increasing your network by one, you have opened up the chance to add all of their contacts as well. Our goal is to find out who else they know and if they would be comfortable introducing us to the next person. Think of it as a ladder and each person you meet is another rung. Each time you meet someone new, you will be one rung closer to getting to the top (a new client). If you can deliver a meaningful “elevator pitch” and build rapport, a few possible things can happen. You may be able to secure an introduction to the next person up the ladder (an influencer). Best-case scenario, they can introduce you to a prospective client.
That’s not to say everyone we meet at these events can be helpful, as there will always be individuals who are out to sell to everyone they meet. As professionals, we can usually spot these people within the first few seconds because they immediately begin to pitch us on whatever they are peddling. However, when we meet other likeminded professionals who are also there to network, our assignment becomes building rapport and thinking about how we can help them.
Take the time to really listen to what they do for a living and ask questions about the type of clients they want to meet. Something as simple as: “Tell me about some of your current clients.” One of my favorites is, “How will I know if someone I meet is a good prospect for you?”
These questions are great for opening up a meaningful dialogue. After a few minutes you will probably decide if this person is someone worth building a relationship with. If you think you can help them by introducing them to someone new, and if they seem like someone who could potentially help you, you can suggest meeting again one on one or at the least scheduling a phone call. The best networkers always initiate and maintain contact, so if you left off with a follow-up plan, then by all means follow up.
If you hit it off with them, invite them to become a part of your breakfast club and continue your networking relationship for the long term. That is how your network grows and where you can really begin to build relationships. Continue to meet with them and look for ways to help their business or introduce them to someone else in your network who can. If you have done a good job describing the type of businesses you work with and the type of people you are looking to meet, they should naturally want to reciprocate. This will lead to the next rung on the ladder and bring you one step closer to your next client. If everyone works together, everyone can enjoy success.
The next time you attend an event, instead of looking for new clients, change your thinking and focus on meeting new people and looking for ways to help them. If you can do a good job at this, ideally your new networking contacts will either introduce you to a new potential client or to someone else in their network who can.