MOST CHANNEL PROS know plenty about the kind of networking that moves data around. They’re often less adept, however, at the kind that builds connections and relationships for new opportunities. According to some successful consultants in the field, it will take knowledge about both kinds of networks to truly grow in a post-pandemic market.
There are countless ways to define professional networking, but one thing it’s not is sales.
“When we think about sales, we’re thinking about that ‘final sale,'” explains career coach Alaina G. Levine. Her company, Quantum Success Solutions, is a consultancy for what she calls “STEM-educated professionals.” For her, networking is what takes place before and after the sale.
At its most basic level, networking is essentially the act of meeting people and establishing business contacts. Levine describes it more exactly as “long-term relationship-building.”
“Networking is the most honorable endeavor in which you can engage because, at its heart, it’s built on a platform of generosity,” she says. “It’s asking, ‘What can I do to solve a problem for you or help you advance your goals?'”
Lori Tisinai isn’t a career coach, yet her advice to her peers echoes that of Levine.
“Networking is going out and meeting other people [who] either work for a business or own one,” says Tisinai, entrepreneur and owner of Computer Concepts, an IT services and training firm in Lake Bluff, Ill. “When I’m networking, I’m not pitching something to somebody; I’m learning about them. Who do I know that I can connect them with? How can I help them solve a problem?”
Networking Is Marketing
It may seem like trite advice to “find opportunities through professional networking,” but indeed, it’s a marketing strategy, with time and money well spent—better well spent, in some cases, than traditional advertising.
“I still believe in the old-school style of shaking hands and taking numbers,” asserts Michael Goldstein, president of LAN Infotech, an MSP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. So much so, in fact, that he has two full-time employees whose roles are specifically to develop “community relationships.”
“We’re always looking to use marketing development funds for networking opportunities,” Goldstein says. “And I look at [their salaries] as what I might have spent on advertising. These guys are walking ads out there.”
LAN Infotech belongs to multiple chambers of commerce and uses its community relationships team to remain actively involved as sponsors and volunteers. “We joke these guys eat four meals a day, attending breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and cocktail hours,” Goldstein says. “The relationships you gain are super valuable. I get a ton of referrals.”
Tisinai did the same thing to establish her practice. “When I first was growing my business, I would try to go to a networking event at least once a week,” she recalls. “Sometimes the events were fun. It didn’t necessarily need to be where I was fixated on getting a new client. Being out on the golf course, maybe. I even started curling at the country club.”
Strategies for Wallflowers
It’s all well and good for extroverts with exceptionally bubbly personalities to tell reserved engineer-types to rub elbows with the elite members of the chamber board of directors. But how do you actually drum up the courage to meet new people and connect in a meaningful way?
Goldstein puts it bluntly. “It may not be you. You may need to hire someone more social to go out there.” Nevertheless, he does offer some hard-earned advice: “When you’re at a networking event, you know people will be there to introduce themselves. So, I try to have a plan.”
Rather than bumble amongst many unknown individuals at an event, Goldstein suggests identifying attendees who work in or with a particular vertical market of interest. “We’ve all been to a chamber event with 12 realtors there,” he quips. “I like to get there early and look at all the name badges. I decide, ‘These are the four companies I want to meet.'”
When Tisinai started going to networking events, she was a bit of a wallflower herself. “But I wasn’t going to grow if I only spoke with the same people,” she concluded. “So, I started walking up to people, and I asked them what they were working on: ‘Have you finished a project lately? Are you doing any volunteer work in our area?'”
If you’re especially shy, then you might consider a surprising tactic offered by Levine: Be the host. “If you create your own networking event, people come to you,” she says. “You own the room when you’re the host. You’re suddenly creating this event for the community, and the community wants to show its appreciation and will approach you.”
Tisinai piggybacks on that idea, adding that vendor partners will sometimes do most of the speaking for you—even at your own event. “A lot of time, vendors have speakers [who] can come and help you with your presentation,” she says.
Navigating the Hybrid World
Does all this networking advice go out the window now that the COVID-19 pandemic has normalized the “virtual” landscape. Not really. Goldstein is quick to point out that remote conferences are nothing new—and that these trends don’t mean in-person events are going away either.
“Pre-pandemic, we had tons of webinars,” he reminds us. “We always were in some kind of hybrid state. We just didn’t really realize it.”
Today, Goldstein believes, people are a little “Zoom’d out” and “excited to get back in person.” But he acknowledges the hybrid model is nevertheless here to stay.
In fact, LAN Infotech has created a new service arm geared toward helping SMBs, nonprofits, and other organizations conduct virtual events using the Remo platform. Just last fall, his company virtually hosted a local synagogue’s High Holidays for just $1,000. More important than the modest income, however, was that the service put LAN Infotech “in front of the movers and shakers” of other local businesses and potential clients.
Tisinai, too, sees virtual networking as a longstanding practice with growing potential. “I use my social media to build my relationships,” she points out. “I don’t use it as a soapbox; I use it to communicate what I’m doing and what I’m working on and to share best practices.”
“The thing about networking—one of the biggest myths—is that it only happens in person,” Levine says. “But we don’t have to just rely on the 5 p.m. ‘wine and dine’ at the local chamber. I think the pandemic is showing the meetings industry there are other ways to do business. There are many ways of reimagining conferences as hybrid and more inclusive.”
The main thing to remember, Levine concludes, is that the platform, whether in-person or virtual, really doesn’t matter. “We’re most likely networking already,” she says. “We just need to understand that networking isn’t convincing someone to pay you for a product, but instead finding collaborations to help solve a problem. Everyone has some sort of pain point. We network to help alleviate that pain point.”