Connect & survive: networking skills everyone can use

Making business connections is vital for continued success. Whether you feel you are a confident conversationalist or a clueless communicator, you can improve your networking skills. We ask an expert for advice.

Charlie Lawson is the author of 'The Unnatural Networker' and a National Director of Business Network International (BNI). A self-proclaimed duffer when it came to building connections, he has learnt the hard way how to 'get out there'. We asked him for his top tips on how anyone can improve their commercial connections.

Know why you are doing it

Some of your best customers come from referrals and recommendations. Networking is a way of meeting new people who can help build these. They are a precursor to creating the next stage of the relationship. That might mean sending an email, setting up a phone call or meeting, or sending a sample pack. Whatever your plan, always follow-up. This is your first step to credibility in this relationship and one that takes you closer to a referral or recommendation.

Think breadth and depth: go online and face-to-face

Online channels allow you to quickly build up a wide and geographically diverse contact network. But serious business referrals only really stem from the confidence and trust built up through face-to-face meetings; they provide the necessary depth to your network. It is not a choice of face-to-face or online; you have to do both if you want breadth and depth.

Everyone is a potential benefit to your business

Don't approach a networking opportunity as a hunter. If you go with an eye on isolating only the people you feel will be of use to you immediately, you are missing the point. Instead, be a farmer. Nurturing relationships over time will yield far more; don't think solely about who is in the room but instead consider who they might know. Every individual has a contact list that you could access, and those contacts know yet more people. Networking is all about building relationships.

Don't think solely about who is in the room but instead consider who they might know.

Make networking happen anytime and anywhere

Formal events are useful but you can talk to people and build relationships anywhere and at any time. Think about how often you get to talk to people during the course of the day and imagine these people being part of your network and you being part of theirs.

Make your conversations count

Some people are natural networkers. Most are not. Some people can attend a meeting and scoop up armfuls of business cards. Some come away with just a few. Feeling you have to be the former when you are more the latter cannot end well.

You may still have to push yourself out of your comfort zone a bit, but rather than zealously working the entire floor, spend more time talking to fewer people. Don't latch on to one person but do think 'quality not quantity'. And remember to follow-up. Many fail at this point so be ahead of the game.

Learn to read body language

Attend any event and it always looks like everyone knows everyone else, except you. Knowing how to break into a conversation is perhaps one of the hardest skills to master. It need not be.

Look at body language. People already in conversation, standing close, mirroring each other's stance and facing each other indicates a private conversation, so best not disturb them. If people are more 'side-on' in their posture, their open body language indicates that others are perhaps welcome to join in. Working out how and when to chip in can still be intimidating though.

Instead, why not look for the person who is on their own, probably 'checking their emails' on their smartphone (they won't really be). Every event has email checkers: talk to them. There's no conversation to interrupt and, most likely, they will be pleased that someone wants to strike up a conversation. It's a relationship-building winner. And that, after all, is what it is all about.

Thought leadership from HSBC

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