Successful networking is important to sole practitioners, aspiring partners, and job seekers. It is particularly important for solos because our livelihood depends on our ability to bring in business. When I started my own practice, I went to a lot of networking events. I would meet as many people as humanly possible, leave with a stack full of business cards, and send countless follow-up e-mails. Yet, there were times when I would end up empty-handed with nothing to show for all the networking I had done. I knew I needed help, so I started talking to other attorneys, particularly sole practitioners. I soon realized that many attorneys struggle with networking, but it was not for the lack of effort. Rather, the problem was a deficiency in planning, focus, or follow-up.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail
Do you have a networking plan? Without a plan, you may be wandering aimlessly and not using your time wisely. Spending a little bit of time to create a plan allows you to be efficient so you are choosing only those opportunities that will lead directly to the results you want.
If you do not already have a plan, here are some questions to ask yourself to get started:
- What is your goal? What is a successful networking result? Set a measurable goal that you want to obtain. Whether it is a dollar amount or number of new clients, setting a measurable goal will allow you to break it down into specific actions and tasks. It also will allow you to assess if you are on track to reach the result you want or if you need to adjust what you are doing to get back on track.
- Who do you need to network with to get the result you are striving for? Think about the ideal individuals you are seeking. Do they have a specific job title? Where do they spend their time? Who do they interact with every day? Be as detailed as possible when creating an image of your ideal individual. Understanding whom you are seeking will help you formulate specific questions to ask when you are networking so you can quickly figure out if this person is someone you want to follow up with.
- Where will you go to network with these individuals? Although opportunities can happen anywhere, there are events and locations that will provide a greater chance of finding them. No, I am not suggesting that you go chasing down ambulances. However, I won’t stop you if you want to spend the big bucks to put up a billboard near the most accident-prone intersection in your neighborhood. While not all of us have money to spend on a billboard, we can all instill smart networking practices by being selective and attending events that will provide a greater return for our efforts. You want to connect with people who need what you are offering. This is where understanding whom you are looking for can help you. If you know whom you are looking for, then you will be able to figure out where they like to spend their time. And they won’t necessarily be at an event specifically labeled as a networking event. It could be a trade show, workshop, or anywhere your ideal individuals tend to congregate.
Once you create a plan, write it down. A study conducted by Dr. Gail Matthews from Dominican University (tinyurl.com/q6udvhu) found that those who wrote their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not write their goals. Mary Wenzel, a marketing consultant for attorneys, also suggests, “You should document everything you’re doing. So you can look back and see what works and what doesn’t.” Having a written plan is also a great reminder to keep at it every day. Networking is not a one-and-done activity. You need to be constantly working at it.
You should also constantly be working to improve your plan. Ideally, fulfilling each action step should result in the accomplishment of your goals. However, if you find that something isn’t working, then scrap it. Don’t be afraid to try something new or find a creative way to network. Use your plan like a guideline, rather than strict rules to adhere to.
Quality over Quantity
Whether you’re a general practitioner or a specialist, focus is key when it comes to networking. There are attorneys who will hand out business cards to everyone in the room and repeat their carefully crafted elevator speech over and over again. They’re essentially a walking advertisement, which can be off-putting, like a pushy salesman. These lawyers also believe that if they repeat their message enough times, it will reach their audience. Unfortunately, this type of networking depends on quantity over quality interactions, which can result in networking fatigue. It also leaves things to chance and gives you no control over the success of your networking. Even if you give out millions of business cards, you cannot control whether an individual will keep your card, let alone use it to call you and seek your business.
You need to network smarter, not harder. One way is to pick a focus, whether it’s a niche practice area or a specific type of clientele. Melody Kramer, an attorney at Legal Greenhouse, advises attorneys to “pick a niche of what you are doing and focus your networking and marketing. Pick something. You’re not bound to it for life.” If you are a general practitioner, pick one or two areas to focus on and create a plan that is tailored to this practice area.
Your goal should not be to attend as many networking events as possible. Not every networking opportunity will be the right fit for you. Picking a focus allows you to determine which one will provide the greatest chance of meeting the people you are trying to connect with. And when you find them, you should not be spewing some marketing script at them. Have a genuine conversation and connect with them on a personal level.
Follow-Up Is Key
If you have a hard time following up, you are not alone. Even the most seasoned networker will drop the ball once in a while when it comes to following up with a new contact. I’ve definitely let a few good contacts fall through the cracks because I waited too long to follow up with them. Here are some tips for following up:
- Take advantage of technology. You can use calendar notifications, e-mail marketing services, and customer relationship management (CRM) software to remind you to follow up. I like to use my Google Calendar to set up reminders to send follow-up e-mails. If you have permission, you also can send scheduled e-newsletters to your contacts using MailChimp or Constant Contact. There’s also quite a bit of CRM software out there for small businesses, such as Salesforce, Infusionsoft, and Insightly.
- Group your new contacts. Is your contact a potential client, referral source, or someone you just enjoyed talking with? Grouping your contacts will allow you to tailor your messages to them and determine how frequently to contact them. You also can prioritize whom you contact first so you can make sure you don’t let go of a potential client.
- Continue to follow up. Often you will need to cultivate the relationship before a contact becomes a new client or referral source. Set aside time in your schedule to follow up with old and new contacts. Make it a habit to keep in touch.
If you choose to take away only one suggestion from this article, make sure it is the importance of following up. It doesn’t matter if you have the most thought-out plan, attend a networking event every day, or meet everyone at the networking event. Without follow-up, all your networking efforts will be in vain.
Have a System
Once you find what’s been working in your networking plan, create a system. As you use this system, make adjustments to determine what works best. For instance, you can create a system for following up with a potential client. Wenzel shared, “It took me a long time to create a step-by-step on follow-up. I think I would have taken more advantage of the contacts I made out and about.”
You can set how often you’d keep in touch, what type of message you would send, and what method of communication you would use. And you can make changes to your system as you learn what has helped turn that potential client into an actual client.
Having a system also allows you to simplify the way you network. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel constantly. Part of my system is to follow up with all contacts within 24 hours of meeting them. If I go to a large event, I may have to send multiple e-mails. I don’t like sending a generic message, so I have an e-mail template that I use and tailor the message to each new contact. This not only saves me time, but it makes it more likely for me to follow up with them.
A system should make your life easier. And just like your plan, it should be updated constantly and changed as you go.
Continue to Make Changes and Improve
It has been said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” You cannot talk to the same people, attend the same events, or keep up the same networking habits and expect different results. If you are not getting the results you are looking for, step back and reevaluate what you are doing. Whether it is your plan, focus, or follow-through, continue to make changes and fine-tune it.
To help make improvements, I recommend reading networking and sales books, especially those written for service professionals. If there are attorneys you admire, contact them and see if they wouldn’t mind sharing some of their tips and tricks. And if you really need hand-holding, hire professional help. There are strategists and consultants out there who eat, sleep, and breathe networking.
Finally, remember that networking takes time and hard work. Networking efforts rarely result in immediate gratification. In the social media age, it’s easy to make a superficial connection, like adding someone to LinkedIn, but it takes times to cultivate a true connection. And always be professional and genuine to everyone you meet. You never know whom they might know.