Networking provides legal professionals with opportunities to develop business by meting their target audiences in person. Because you only get one chance to make a first impression, it’s important to network well. You want that first impression to be good.
In this chapter, we look at how you can use the different types of networking to create and build valuable business relationships.
How does networking contribute to business development?
Networking creates opportunities for personal selling. By meeting new people, you will be able to build a solid database of contacts – including existing and target clients, and key influencers in the market. This database will be a critical part of your business development armoury. With it, you can focus your marketing activity to relevant target audiences. Networking is one of the most effective ways of building this database.
To ensure you are supporting your firm’s business development goals, and investing time well, it is helpful to be clear at the outset why you are networking. Reasons could include:
- To look for new clients
- To carry out market research
- To look for new commercial opportunities or new employees
How should I approach networking?
To ensure you are focusing on events relevant to your target audiences, create a networking calendar (and keep it up to date!). For example, there’s no point attending events about HR issues if you are looking for medical negligence work.
Make sure the activity you commit to is achievable. Ideally, your firm should be represented at every relevant event, but the reality is, you need to consider people’s diaries, and the cost of attendance (travel, entry/club membership etc).
Tips for effective networking
- Be prepared. Do some research on people you know are attending, and their organisations. If you have a smartphone, download the LinkedIn app in case you want to connect with people you meet.
- Be positive. Take a positive approach to all networking opportunities. If you’re nervous about tackling a room full of strangers, just remember, everyone else in the room will be same boat. Everyone is there for the same reason, to meet new people, so try not to be let the nerves win.
- Join in the conversation. You will probably find it is easier to approach smaller groups of two or three people rather than larger groups. Join in the conversation where appropriate, briefly introduce yourself, shake hands, and then ask questions of others: you will appear interested and confident.
- Strike up a conversation. If you feel hesitant approaching people to strike up a conversation, prepare two or three questions in advance. For example, ‘Which company are you from?’ ‘Is this your first time here?’
- Stay focused. If you already know people in the room, of course you should make the effort to go over and keep up your existing contacts. But try not to stay with them for too long, particularly if your goal for the event was to make new contacts.
- Keep moving. Try to speak to as many people in the room as you can. Don’t be afraid to politely wrap up a conversation by swapping contact details (business cards, LinkedIn etc) or arranging a follow up action such as a telephone call – whatever is appropriate to the conversation you have had. Be careful though not to be perceived as blunt or rude or overtly eager to move on.
- Talk about yourself (a little!). Look for opportunities to put forward your own personal brand. Go in prepared with an ‘elevator pitch’. This should include some detail about you – who you are, what you do. Remember, you’re there to make an impression. Just be conscious of not dominating the conversation and making it all about you.
- Follow up. You should follow up on any outstanding actions from the event; ideally this would be on the next working day. Add them to your database, connect with them via LinkedIn and Google+, and follow them on Twitter. If your conversation was more advanced, it may be appropriate to send a direct email or making a phone call.
What networking opportunities are there?
Typical networking opportunities include:
- Networking groups
- Exhibitions/trade shows
Business networking has become an efficient and well organised activity. Most networking groups are run by specialist organisations, who organise the events (including venue, catering, guest speakers etc), with members paying a monthly fee to attend.
Groups are focused on particular areas of interest such as commercial property, HR, corporate finance, or by locality. So it is important to research what groups are out there and which are relevant to your firm’s goals and target markets. Local networking groups for example may seem less ‘focused’ as they attract people from a range of business backgrounds and industry sectors. But there are advantages to this: it offers you greater opportunities to meet the people you wouldn’t usually come across in your daily work.
Use Google and the relevant press to see what opportunities there are for you. For example, your local business paper may have details in its weekly business diary of upcoming networking events. Chambers of Commerce are typically prolific event organisers at a local level.
The events are usually held during the working week outside of core business hours which means that attendees can meet and talk over breakfast or lunch. Attending regularly will help you build productive relationships…
Some events can be informal, with people circulating and mingling. Others may be more structured, such as ‘business speed dating’. Speak to the company organising the event to get a feel for the type of event it will be. This will allow you to prepare better and approach the event with confidence.
Conferences offer good opportunities for business networking. In addition to the organised activities (workshops, talks, social slots etc), there are benefits of being around other people with similar skills and interests to yourself. Networking is how you can capitalise on this.
- Approach the conference as you would any networking event; introduce yourself, ask questions, speak to people you don’t know.
- Take a supply of business cards. On the back of any you receive, write brief notes about the person in question – things you can use in later dialogues. If you have a smartphone, download the LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ apps so you can connect with people there and then.
- Follow up when you’re back in the office. Again, this has to be appropriate, so judge it by the conversations you had.
- Giving a presentation or holding a workshop at a conference is an excellent way to increase your exposure and demonstrate expertise in the subject area. If you are interested in doing this, speak to the event organisers as far in advance as is practicable. They may have opportunities which provide you with a platform to showcase your expertise and of course network with delegates.
Seminars are useful for continuing learning and development and for business networking opportunities with delegates and speakers.
As with any networking opportunity, take the time to introduce yourself, and explain who you work for and what you do. You’ll find very little actual business takes place at a seminar, but as you are looking for opportunities to build your network of contacts and create new working relationships, seminars are ideal. The best approach is to keep your focus on the actual seminar and improving your knowledge, and then exploit any networking opportunities that flow from it .
Exhibitions enable businesses to promote themselves directly to their target audiences. Exhibitions tend to attract large audiences with varying degrees of interest (and purchasing power) in the subject matter, and who know they will be ‘sold to’. Exhibitions are excellent for business networking.
You can research exhibitions online, or using relevant regional and sector press.
Attending an exhibition as a delegate
The cost of attending an exhibition is less than exhibiting, being the entry charge plus travel and expenses. You will still be able to network, but your exposure will be limited to the people you meet.
Do some preparation in advance, look at the exhibition website so you know which stands you want to visit, and which talks and demonstrations to attend (these should include competitors for market research). There is usually so much going on at exhibitions it is vital you focus on what is relevant to your firm.
If you are considering exhibiting for the first time, it may be wise to attend as a delegate first, to get a feel for the event, how it runs, who else is exhibiting and who is attending. You can then make an informed decision for the future about your firm’s level of investment in the event.
As an exhibitor, your firm will enjoy branding exposure on your stand and in the event material (exhibition guide, website – ask the organisers for the list of what is included in your exhibitors’ fee). You will have your own fixed ‘space’ from which you can approach people as they pass by, as well as inviting specific people onto for appointments. You may even get first refusal on holding a workshop or presentation, depending on the exhibitor package you have signed up to.
Exhibiting is without question one of the most expensive marketing activities you could undertake. You will need to clarify with the organisers what exactly is included in your exhibitor package.
Generally you will need to factor in the cost of:
- ‘Renting’ the space for your stand
- ‘Dressing’ your stand – this could be with a purpose-built stand, or more flexible (and less expensive) ‘pop-up’ solutions
- Branded support materials if you choose to use these, such as brochures and give-aways or freebies
- Travel, accommodation and expenses of your representatives
You need to weigh up the total cost with the projected benefit of exhibiting.
Giving a presentation or holding a workshop at an exhibition is an excellent way to increase your exposure and demonstrate expertise in the subject area. If interested, speak to the event organisers 12 months in advance. They may have opportunities (likely requiring sponsorship), providing you with a platform to showcase expertise and of course network with delegates.