How to do business networking like a pro (and why utilising a CRM system is like networking on steroids)

As Business Relationship Manager here at CRM Insights, a large part of my week is spent engaging in business networking. A role that I relish! I find it so rewarding meeting new people, and finding ways in which I can help them.  With business networking being a key way in which many businesses seek to find new clients and partners, I thought I'd write this article to share my thoughts on many of the different ways in which you can get involved in it. I’ll also share hints and tips from my own experiences on how to be successful at business networking. And I’ll finish up with an explanation of where a CRM system can help put your business networking on steroids.

Why bother with business networking?

Firstly, let’s discuss where networking fits in, and what the point is!

For most of us, to be a viable business we must make sales - whether it be products or services. To make sales, we need to find customers. And if what you sell is a complex product or service, then you first need to build trust in your prospective customers. Trust, that is, in your products and services, as well as trust in you and your company as the provider.

To build trust, you must first create awareness. A potential customer isn’t going to trust you if they don’t even know you exist! Creating awareness is a prime responsibility of the marketing team. And it is the job of the sales team to convert trusting prospects into paying clients and customers.

The job of Business Relationship Manager spans these two functions. It includes helping to raise awareness; to generate conversations; to build trust in what your business has to offer; and to create opportunities to introduce your salespeople to potential customers. A unique aspect to the role that’s not explicitly covered by marketing and sales departments, is to build relationships with people who may know others who could benefit from your products and services. This is one element where business networking becomes fundamental.

Where are all the prospective customers?

Business networking provides the opportunity for you to build relationships directly with potential customers, although more often than not, with a network of people who can introduce you to your potential customers. Therefore, networking is all about groups of people choosing to meet and engage with each other with the aim of creating further connections.

I’ve been networking for a long time, and when I meet people new to business networking I frequently see them making the same mistake. They go into it believing that they’re going to be in a room full of prospective customers. Of course, it can happen that from time to time, but more likely it won’t. Instead, you’ll be in a room of people who might know others who could benefit from your products and services. 

This is where the concept of 6 degrees of separation comes into play - the idea that every person in the world is connected to every other person in the world by a chain of family members, friends, or acquaintances that number no more than 5 people.  

Why once is never enough!

However, when it comes to business networking, you’ve got to do a lot more than just ask - you need to put in the work. It’s a cliché, but you get out of networking what you put in. Your aim shouldn’t be to simply attend as many different networking events as possible. You might do this initially in order to identify the networks that you feel will be best for you, but once you’ve done that, you need to commit. You need to put in consistent effort. As our Head of Marketing always says, you need to be consistent, persistent, and patient.

The logic behind this is simple: You need to be remembered!

The chances of meeting someone who knows someone else who might need your services the first time you meet is minimal indeed. The reality is, people are unlikely to remember you after meeting you just once. No matter how amazing your elevator pitch might be, you must reinforce the message. You must turn up repeatedly, and repeat, replay, and realign your elevator pitch until people start to relate you and your company with the challenges that you help people and businesses to overcome.

Only then will your business networking efforts start to pay off.

Networking in a post-Covid world

Let’s be clear, there will never be a post Covid world. What Covid did do, however, was to turn the world of business networking upside down. Temporarily. After the initial panic, what resulted was a lot of innovation. Events that were once live went online. Then, as Covid subsided, those same events became hybrid – both online and in-person. This is the brave new world we now find ourselves. A business networking world where there is more choice and variety than ever before, so you can’t fail to find something that suits you.

The different types of business networking

In this section I’m going to run through the main different ways in which you can get involved in business networking. There are many different types of events, and you can find just as many people raving about the merits of one type of event versus another. Rather than there being any one event type that you must attend, better to try out multiple events and event types and determine which ones work best for you. 

Dedicated face-to-face networking events

This is the classic approach to networking. Someone makes you aware of a face-to-face event, or you find out about it online. You get in touch with the organisers and let them know you'd like to attend, or you can often simply register online. Some of these events require a paid subscription. In such cases you usually get one or two free attendances, but thereafter you’ll be expected to become a member. If there’s food included – say a breakfast event – then there’ll be a charge for the breakfast too. These costs often cover the venue hire for the organisers and they’re not usually that costly.

The structure of these events is typically as follows:

  • Everyone arrives and people start grabbing coffees and introducing themselves casually to each other.
  • The host gets everyone to sit down and introduces the event. If food is included, people usually sit down with their food as the introduction is given.
  • Each attendee is expected to introduce themselves one-by-one, often given 60 seconds to pitch (most attendees hate this bit!)
  • A short 15-30 minute talk is given by a guest speaker. Sometimes this can be a rotation of regular members.
  • The formal event comes to a close, which often ends up in people continuing in 1-2-1 discussions.

Face-to-face networking pros and cons

  • You get to meet people in-person.
  • It’s a great opportunity to arrange 1-2-1 follow-on meetings with relevant people who you meet.
  • It provides the opportunity for you to make referrals
  • It can be very time consuming, requiring a minimum of 2 hours to attend, plus the additional travel time to/from the venue – which can often be just as long.
  • Public transport and parking can be a pain plus an additional expense.
  • Quite often locations aren’t easily accessible by public transport.

The future of face-to-face networking

Face-to-face networking events will always exist as meeting people is a human need! The formats and styles will continue to evolve, but you should always be able to find something to suit you. The time required is a huge factor to consider, especially when you add in travel time. Therefore, choose your networking event carefully.

A big challenge with face-to-face events is that they require a well-organised host who has the energy and gravitas to both keep the event going, and to get it growing. This is no mean feat. Many people who create networking events underestimate the effort involved. Effort that is usually voluntary, which is why it is relatively rare for networking events to last in the long-term. The pay-off is in the relationships that you can develop, which will invariably outlive any networking event.

Those networks that do last are often those for which you need to be a member in the first place. They typically have a commercial model which helps to sustain the network.

A note on referral networking

The different referral types

Let's first get clear on the two main types of referral:

  1. Earned referral: When a connection knows someone is looking for help with something; they know that it sits within the area of expertise that your business operates; and without prompting, they refer you in. Typically, this is done by way of introductory email or meeting along with an endorsement.
  2. Requested referral: When you initiate the request and ask people to refer you in to an organisation with the view that they may benefit from the products and services that your organisation provides. In this instance, the prospective client's need may not have been established first.

Earned referrals would typically stand a greater chance of being turned into a sales opportunity. As to why you would want to be referred, well the evidence is compelling:

  • 92% of people trust recommendations from someone they know. 
  • 84% of B2B decision makers start their buying process with a recommendation. 
  • Lifetime value for a new referral is 16% higher.
  • 83% of consumers are willing to refer after a positive experience—yet only 29% actually do.

Referral networking

A referral network is a group of individuals that meet with the aim of giving each other referrals. They can be based on formal or informal agreements. At the more formal end, members of the group are expected to provide referrals, and if they don't meet their quota, they can be asked to leave the group. A downside to this is that it can lead to low-value/likelihood referrals which can lead to wasting a lot of time. Such networks can be more suited to specific industries, such as those that have more transactional products and services and thus require a lower level of trust in order to make a sale.

The best referral networks, in my experience, are those where the members of the group work within related industries and thus can naturally and comfortably make referrals.

Social networking events

These are less formal events. They often have a theme and are more about the social interaction. No pitch is usually necessary, just casual mingling and engaging in conversation with attendees. they can sometimes be an evening add-on to a day’s exhibition or training event. They can be held in all sorts of venues, from pubs, to museums, to boat trips, to outdoor walking (the latter sometimes referred to as netwalking).

Social networking pros and cons

  • A more informal/casual way of meeting new people or reconnecting with existing contacts.
  • Can be outside of business hours so does not impact on your business day.
  • Can sometimes be in venues not conducive to conversation e.g. a noisy bar!
  • Unknown number of attendees until you turn up, and typically lots of last minute ‘no-shows’.
  • Not popular with those of an introverted nature!

The future of social networking

The more comfortable, less formal nature of these events, combined with simple human desire to connect with others, means that these types of events are likely to always be around. The more extroverted you are, the easier you may find these types of events. 

Corporate and sporting events

A variation on social networking events, but typically focused on people who already connected in some way – or at least the organiser is connected to the other attendees . Such events have always been popular, whether they be sponsored golf days or attending race days, or other sporting events such as cricket, tennis and football matches.

Sports hospitality events can be a large expense to invite your customers to but they represent a great opportunity to build on existing relationships and to further business opportunities.

Corporate and sporting events pros and cons

  • The duration of such events provide plenty of time for building deeper relationships.
  • Attendees represent a closed audience for the organiser.
  • Represent a great opportunity for the organiser to increase connections amongst their networking
  • Can be costly.
  • Tends to take people out for an entire day at a time.

The future of corporate and sporting events

There’s little doubt that there will always be networking events of this type. In some ways, the pandemic drove people to network in smaller groups, so such events may grow in popularity.

Industry exhibitions and conferences

You can typically find exhibitions and conferences for suppliers and customers in most industries. Such events may be hosted by a large supplier who perhaps invites a handful of smaller suppliers to host stands along a main stage. Or they can be hosted by exhibition companies where any relevant company can pay for an exhibition stand. The aim of these events is largely to connect buyers with sellers. However, with the majority of people not 'in-market', it pays to develop as many relationships as possible in readiness for when someone is in-market later on down the line. 

The size of these events can vary from a few hundred attendees to thousands.

Some of these events have  also embraced the hybrid model. For example, the annual Sales Innovation Expo maintains connection with visitors through the provision of online events and free training outside of the main event throughout the year. One such example is their Sales Innovation Digital Series where Mike Basketter, one of our directors, delivered a free training sessions on how to drive sales performance.

Industry events and conference pros and cons

  • Face-to-face events are great for meeting connections, both new and existing.
  • Opportunity to find out the latest news and trends all in one location
  • Attendees all have common interests
  • Opportunities for collaboration
  • Often in held in large spaces so may be difficult to get to speak with other attendees.
  • Can be held over one or more days.
  • The cost of exhibiting can be high.
  • Due to low frequency - i.e. often annual - you only get one shot at making a good impression!

The future of industry events and conferences

Industry exhibitions and conferences will always take place. However, as businesses become more environmentally conscious, there may be less interest in travelling long distances. The number of businesses that attend such events can also be impacted by economic cycles, so such events can differ from one year to the next.

Associations and membership organisations

Such groups are really a variation of the above business networking type - Industry exhibitions and conferences. They are closed groups available only to people and organisations that meet the relevant criteria. 

Associations and membership organisations pros and cons

  • Have common reasons for attending.
  • Opportunities for collaboration with similar companies.
  • Good knowledge sharing opportunities.
  • Often an added benefit of learning whilst attending events.
  • Annual costs can be high.
  • Can be closed to external providers.
  • Events may not be that frequent.
  • Events are not always local so can require additional time and expenses.

The future of Associations and membership organisations

Associations and membership organisations will continue to exist as there's often great benefits in networking amongst a more targeted group. Paid membership organisations also have a team of people dedicated to keeping the membership alive and engaged. The hybrid model has made event attendance open to more people, which is a positive. 

Speed networking

This is a popular method of networking that often exists as an optional component at exhibitions and conferences. They’re obviously designed to accelerate meeting new business contacts in a short space of time.  Have plenty of business cards with you to dish out!

Speed networking pros and cons

  • You get to meet several people in a short space of time.
  • It saves getting stuck talking to someone who isn’t a great fit.
  • You can exchange business cards and follow-up afterwards when you meet a potentially good fit.
  • It can feel rather impersonal.
  • There’s not really much time to share information beyond business cards.
  • You can end up speaking with people far removed from who you’d ideally be speaking to.
  • You might find the other person is inexperienced and either doesn’t say much, or says so much that you don’t get the chance to share!

The future of speed networking

Speed networking events are often found alongside business exhibitions. So, whilst some may find it gimmicky it does have its benefits. Plus they can be fun sometimes!

Online networking

The majority of this article thus far has referred to in-person live events. However, the cancelling of in-person events that the pandemic enforced upon us all led to the immediate growth in online networking. Whilst it did exist pre-pandemic, it's take-up exploded in 2020. We all got very used to having our faces on camera in our homes, even if we did get Zoom-fatigue at times!

During these events there are often breakout rooms – where attendees get allocated into different groups of people to have a discussion often around a given topic.  This gives everyone a chance to get to know each other better.

There are often presentations or guest speakers at the events so that things can be learned along the way rather than just turning up for the sake of being there.

Online networking pros and cons

  • Very time efficient as you can fit events in around other priorities and work activities.
  • You can attend multiple events in a day.
  • Provides the opportunity to meet people from further afield as well as overseas that you would not otherwise meet.
  • Can plan to attend at the last minute.
  • No travelling involved
  • For those who enjoy face to face contact it can seem impersonal
  • If you meet people from a long distance the chances are less likely you'll ever meet face to face.
  • Can be difficult to get conversation going, dependent upon whom you partnered up with when in breakout rooms. 

The future of online networking

Online networking is here to stay due to the time factor, plus there are no issues with parking and transport, etc. The ability to hop from one event to another without any travel time involved is fantastic. This has become one of my personal favourite ways to go about business networking, and it has led to many in-person meetings as a result!

Social media

Business networking via social media is probably the only type of business networking that is asynchronous. It's not often real-time two-way communication as all the other methods are. However, social media platforms provide a great way to build a big audience, and thus amplify your message. For example, at the time of writing I now have more than 5,400 connections on Linkedin. I reproduce our monthly newsletter (which goes out to 3,500+ people) on Linkedin where a further 1,000+ subscribe. We also have more than 750 people follow our Linkedin company page. This just shows what a great opportunity social media is to grow your audience and thus raise awareness.

For this to happen, three key things are required:

  1. You need to continue to grow my network by regularly sending new connection requests and inviting new connections to subscribe to our newsletter and follow our company page.
  2. You need to educate, inform and educate my network by regularly posting content.
  3. You need to spend time and effort engaging in the content of my connections.

Social media pros and cons

  • Can be much quicker than other forms of networking.
  • Open you up to a much broader audience.
  • Ability to be interactive on a regular basis.
  • You can outsource some elements of it.
  • Can be very time consuming and addictive!
  • Can be a distraction from your workday.
  • The relationship building and trust can take longer when you haven’t met face-to-face.

The future of social media

Social media has changed all of our lives and it's here to stay. The exact platforms are likely to always be shifting and changing. And regulation and legislation will have its impact. What's important is to do a lot of testing to find the right platform for you, and to ensure that your chosen platform at least appears to have a long-term future.

Preparing yourself to go business networking

As I’ve covered above, networking events come in a plethora of different formats, online, in-person, and even hybrid. Plus, the conversation often carries on after an event through online forums and social media. So, if you’re going to embark on business networking, here’s some guidance of what to do before, during, and after the event.

Before you start business networking

Whilst I would not recommend being too prescriptive about your approach, it certainly helps to have an idea in advance of the following:

  • A clear understanding of what your business and its offerings are.
  • Who you would like to connect with.
  • The kind of businesses you would like to collaborate or align with.
  • The kind of businesses you are likely to cross refer and vice versa.

By being clear on what you would like to achieve from business networking in advance will save you both time and money.

Before an event

  • Get your business cards printed (for in-person events).
  • Determine your elevator pitch.
  • Make sure your Linkedin profile is up to date.
  • For online events, check that your tech works! Get a decent camera; a quality microphone and speakers, and good lighting. Ideally don’t sit there wearing headphones that make you look like a cyborg!
  • Prepare questions in advance to have ready in your mind. You can try small talk, like, “Have you been here before?” or “So what do you do?”, but that’s not very original or inspiring! Instead, try and be more engaging. My advice is to make it all about the person you’re speaking to. You could ask, “What kinds of people and business are you looking to connect with?”. Be sure to be genuinely interested in what they have to say!

During an event

  • Arrive on time. Being too early can be a burden to the organisers. And being too late can make it more awkward to join conversations that have already started.
  • Don’t aim to thrust your business card into the hands of every person that you meet. Only hand it to people when you truly intend to connect after the event – whether or via social media, such as Linkedin, or to arrange a follow-on meeting.   
  • If you have resources that might be relevant to the person to whom you’re talking – for example, a relevant blog article, or a guide, or anything really – be sure to offer to end it to them.

After an event

  • Put their contact details in your CRM.
  • Follow up with an email saying how it was great to meet.
  • Send the things of value if you offered to i.e. a link to blog articles, etc.
  • Send a connection request over Linkedin.
  • If it’s appropriate, suggest a follow-on call or 1-2-1 meeting.

How to ensure relationships don’t fizzle out

Once you have made a new connection, it can be all too easy to let it drift away. Like any kind of relationship, it needs to be nurtured. You must stay in touch and build on the relationship. On meeting someone new, follow up and suggest a 1-to-1 discussion to find out more about them. See if there’s anyone within your network that you might be able to connect them with to the benefit both of them. Consider inviting new connections to one or more of the other business networking events that you attend.

This helps you to stay in regular contact as the number of people and events you attend will both have expanded. Ask new connections if they’d like to be on your newsletter list, and to follow your company on Linkedin. Be sure to utilise Linkedin to promote any new content that you create on your wesbite, such as blog articles.

These are the activities, after all, that make a network.

How can a CRM system benefit your business networking?

Attending a networking event is only really one third of the equation! The remainder is in your follow-up. It takes more than simply sending a social media connection request after an event. As you’ve seen above, there are lots of steps you can take post an event. This is where your CRM system has a role to play.

Your CRM system is your central database to store all contact information. Not just on customers, but also contacts and prospective customers. (You should ensure that the storing of contact data meets the relevant data protection laws and regulations).  

A key benefit of your CRM system is that you can use it to manage contact interactions, which is essential for effective networking, and can help to build stronger relationships with people.

Within your CRM you can segment you contacts into different categories based on their interests, preferences, and behaviour. This segmentation allows you to tailor your marketing and networking efforts to specific contact groups, making them more effective.

Another benefit of the CRM is that you can use it to automate routine tasks, such as sending follow-up emails and reminders, scheduling appointments, and updating contact information. This automation will save you time and thus improves efficiency. This means you can focus on building new relationships.

You can also leverage your CRM system to learn more about your new contacts by measuring their interactions with your content, and even the people in your business. Such insights into behaviour are incredibly powerful. You can utilise this knowledge to identify trends, preferences, and opportunities to improve your marketing content.

You can also use this intelligence to determine when to give the sales team a nod and handover to them to develop potential opportunities.

Overall, a CRM system can benefit your business networking by improving communication, streamlining processes, and providing valuable insights into contact behaviour.

Ultimately, the best type of networking for a particular individual or business depends on their goals, resources, and personal preferences.

What should you do now with your business networking?

You now have a good awareness of the variety of business networking types and events that are available. You also know what you should do before, during, and after an event. And you know how your CRM system can put your business networking on steroids. Now you need to get out there and get building your network!

As New York Times bestselling author and former Yahoo! executive, Tim Sanders, said:

“Your Network is Your Net worth”

My final advice to you is this:

  1. Invest time and effort in your connections to maximise the value you both get from the relationship.
  2. Be sure to leverage your CRM system to maximise the value of your business networking.
  3. And enjoy business networking – it really can be great fun!

Need help and guidance implementing a CRM to support your networking efforts? Then click or tap the button below to schedule a free consultation with one of our CRM experts,