Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an essay adapted from David Burkus’s new book, “Friend of a Friend: Understanding The Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Career,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  In summary, the author sets out the common truth that many of us, including me (surprise!) hate networking with strangers, or at least feel squirmy about it. We also struggle even connecting with people we know.

He instead sets out three alternatives to cold, business-y networking:

  1. Spend more time reconnecting with friends than meeting new people.
  2. Seek out shared activities instead of unstructured events.
  3. Ask better questions.

These three suggestions are smart answers to “What” to do to gain from the need to network? Now, let’s dive into the “How” – a central theme of the SalesReformSchoolÔ – and adapt it to “networking” to drive pipeline growth.
Spend more time reconnecting with friends than meeting new people.

While trust is the center of all mutually beneficial relationships, it’s incredibly hard to build especially with perfect strangers at traditional business networking events. So, if you are going to network, set your expectations low enough that any relationship that follows will seem like a gift.

Let’s face it: From a selfish perspective, business networking is really about seeking new business opportunities – new jobs, new prospects, new ideas on how to succeed.

And the most likely people that will help you are those you already know and who trust you – friends, family and business acquaintances. So, to further your selfish professional or your company’s goals (one and the same if you are self-employed like me), consider focusing your efforts on the people you already know.

When it comes to networking to assist you professionally or job-wise, be authentic and specific. Share your goals and aspirations as well as your failures. Ask the same of others.

But don’t just keep in touch with people because you may need a new job or direction. Fill them in on your present situation. Maybe they can help you and your company now.

But how?

This struggle comes up a lot with my clients. Most are small and growing companies where the CEO and head of sales complain or worry about not having enough opportunities from new prospects or existing customers.

When this comes up, I ask:

“What percent of your entire company can describe at a swim meet or barbecue, or the proverbial cocktail party what problems your company solves and how you solve them?”

The answer is often in the 25-50% range, and at times lower.


What’s there to do?

Answer: Help your people by giving them some content on which to re-connect with their own network – the people they already know.

With small companies, the founders and the executive teams usually understand viscerally that growth and sometimes survival means that everyone has to embrace the core value that “we are all in sales” including accounting, development, delivery, HR, etc. But how does that actually happen?

Well, everyone at your company has to be taught how to describe the problems you solve and how. Some would call this a “Value Proposition”. They have to also buy into the fact that their own networks should hear and appreciate it.

Imagine this: While one of your software engineers Jane is re-connecting with an old friend or even a family member Joe over coffee, the conversation comes around to what they are now up to professionally. Proudly, Jane announces that she’s a software engineer helping customers overcome “this-that-and-the-other” by coding software to automate the XYZ process. Joe senses Jane’s enthusiasm and they talk about Jane’s job some more.  Now, Joe gets “it” and is excited for Jane. Is it possible that out in the wild Joe might hear from another friend Frank that Frank’s company has the problems Jane described? Is it possible Joe remembers his coffee conversation with Jane and connects Jane with Frank? Or at least tells Jane that her company should reach out to Frank?

It happens every day.

The vegetable life does not content itself with casting from the flower or the tree a single seed, but it fills the air and earth with a prodigality of seeds, that, if thousands perish, thousands may plant themselves, that hundreds may come up, that tens may live to maturity; that, at least one may replace the parent.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, Second Series (1844)

So once you and your team have embraced the idea that they need to network to grow personally and help your company grow, show them how to plant a thousand seeds when they network. One of those seeds and hopefully more will replace the hole in your pipeline.

Seek out shared activities instead of unstructured events.

Burkus’s second suggestion is to focus on an activity, not a “freewheeling social event.” This makes total sense. Unless you have a ton of time it’s okay to avoid the networking events where it’s merely an invitation to “have a beer with your colleagues” unless they actually are your friends.

It’s so hard to make new friends. When was the last time you did it? For some, regrettably, it was college or graduate school or when they last changed residences. Unstructured networking events can actually be lonely and self-defeating: very few people can actually build meaningful relationships when the first interaction is “Hello, my name is….” If you are one of those people, go for it.

Otherwise, seek out events with structured and interesting agendas or activities so the subject matter itself becomes the basis of new conversations with new contacts, and then a relationship.
And while at the event or after….

Ask better questions.

And finally, Burkus wants us to ask better questions. I could not agree more.

Whether re-connecting or connecting for the first time at a structured event, follow Dale Carnegie’s lead: Become genuinely interested in other people by asking them about their lives.

Conversations generally will fall into one of three categories: Business, Personal or Health.

During re-connections, try to avoid asking, “How’s it going?” Most people will reply with a short answer. If you must ask, “How’s Biz/your family/ your health?” and the answer is short, follow up with “Why?” or “What’s new with [family member/co-worker/hobby/your interest in…]?

If the networking event has a specific agenda, treat any conversations during breaks or after like book club conversation:

  • What did you like best? Worst?
  • Share what you are wondering about or unsure about and ask for input.
  • “How does the subject matter apply to you?”

And notice the advice is to ask better questions (Burkus) and be interested in OTHER people (Carnegie), not to talk about YOU. Resist talking about yourself unless asked. Most people will eventually realize they are doing all the talking and change the subject to you, allow them the courtesy of doing that.

Lastly, with strangers try hard to be the last person to ask the trite, “So, what do you do?” Too often, this comes off sounding like, “What do you do and the reason I am asking is I want to see if you are important enough for me to talk to you.” Avoid it or go second.

NOTE: I’ve written about questions and conversations a lot, so please visit my blog for more.

SalesReformSchool: Food For Thought

 Regarding structured get-togethers: I love the “Kibbutz” hack advice in “Happiness Hack: This One Ritual Made Me Much Happier”.   Check it out. What do you think?

SalesReformSchool: Extracurricular 

The genius label is thrown around too casually. Not with Vincent Van Gogh.  When I saw  Van Gogh’s paintings for the first time in the Musee D`Orsay, I was blown away. I remember seeing his bedroom painting first.
I could see why Van Gogh is rightly considered a genius. I struggled, however, with articulating why. When it comes to art I am extremely unsophisticated. I only can tell you whether I like something or not.

Thankfully, there’s Twitter.  A tweet by Heidi M. Moore which is no longer available explains Van Gogh’s genius:

“Van Gogh saw the world in maximum color saturation.”

Where have you seen or encountered real genius?

That’s all for today.

Good Selling!

Through SalesReformSchool, I am available to you for Sales Process Design, Sales Messaging Creation, On-boarding/In-boarding Sales Team Workshops, Keynote Addresses, Facilitation, Group or One-on-One Coaching, Pipeline Reviews and other Sales Management Consulting.