Build a connection to build business

I recently spent nearly two hours sitting at an airport gate, sitting about 5 feet behind a stand with Delta American Express card representatives.  You’ve probably seen these stands:  a table to the side of a concourse, with various promotional freebies, application forms neatly stacked, and one or two hawkers, trying desperately to get people to pause and fill out an application.

Annoying, right?  I drowned out the hawker’s calls.  But as I sat reading, I noticed that more people than usual were coming up to this table, and they were staying longer than usual to talk with the card rep.  So I started listening.  And I re-learned something useful.

The average hawker bombards passersby with the “great offer” they simply “can’t pass up”.  But this rep focused on individuals and engaged them:  “You, miss, in the red shirt!  Where are you headed today?”

Some people ignored him, but over and over, people paused, walked to the stand, and talked with the rep. Some told him about their travel delays. Others told him about the jobs they were traveling for or the family they were leaving behind. Several soldiers told him what it’s like to be on leave from duty in the Middle East. And the marketer listened. He asked questions and empathized. He was genuinely present with the people who were talking with him.

After he’d heard some part of their travel story, he’d weave in his offer: “Man, wouldn’t you like to get an extra 10,000 miles so you can get back to see her more often?” Sure, the rep was trying to get people to apply for a credit card, but he was doing it by connecting with people, by building a relationship, albeit a brief one. And almost without exception, the people who stopped in front of the display filled out something, whether a credit card application or a Delta mileage program application.

Observing this guy reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” What I saw was the power of listening and genuine, though brief and superficial, connection.

The contrast was clear when he went on break and another pusher took his place. This hawker didn’t engage people, He threw out half-hearted, “Sir, don’t you want some extra SkyMiles today? It’s a great offer! You can’t pass it up! Sir, you flyin’ Delta today? We’re giving away 10,000 SkyMiles free — for nuthin’!” But the busy passengers did pass by the table over and over without stopping. Those who did stop received only the sales pitch, and I’d guess this vendor’s application completion rate was much less than half of the other man’s.

Small sale or large, connection really does pay. And it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort. It simply requires genuine presence. Not a bad reminder while waiting in an airport.

How can you apply this insight? Write your website copy or the introduction to an article from your target read’s point of view. When talking with a potential client or referral source, ask questions before you talk about your experience and qualifications. Make it your practice to seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

Learn to love networking!

You already know that networking is important, right? In case you need a refresher, consider this data from the Harvard Business Review article Learn to Love Networking:

When we studied 165 lawyers at a large North American law firm, for example, we found that their success depended on their ability to network effectively both internally (to get themselves assigned to choice clients) and externally (to bring business into the firm). Those who regarded these activities as distasteful and avoided them had fewer billable hours than their peers.

If you aren’t a fan of networking (or if you feel uncomfortable or inauthentic while networking), read Learn to Love Networking and discover four simple strategies to overcome your distaste. Here’s my favorite insight from the article:

In the law firm we studied, we found that attorneys who focused on the collective benefits of making connections (“support my firm” and “help my clients”) rather than on personal ones (“support or help my career”) felt more authentic and less dirty while networking, were more likely to network, and had more billable hours as a result.

In other words, like sales, networking isn’t something you do to someone but something you do for and with others.

Making the most of holiday networking

Buckle your seat belt: the business-social season is about to kick into high gear. Many organizations will have holiday parties, and contacts will likely invite you to a variety of parties. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and, if you are strategic about the functions you attend, to meet and build relationships with people who will be helpful for your business development goals.

If you get energy from meeting new people, you’re probably polishing your shoes already. If you’re a bit more introverted, however, or if the idea of walking into a room of strangers is so off-putting you’d rather do anything else, you might be tempted to skip out on these business-social opportunities. 

Here’s help, through a few articles I’ve recently read, plus one video:

The 17 best icebreakers to use at awkward social events offers some good ideas to kick off conversation, with simple suggestions such as asking whether your conversational partner is originally from the city you’re in or whether she came here for business. Ignore the goofy photos and a few goofy icebreakers, but do read the commentary along with each suggestion for some valuable insight.

7 Tips for Networking has good principles for networking. The first (don’t arrive late) and last (follow up) are my favorites, but all are useful.

20 Ways to Start a Conversation and Build into a Connection makes the critical (but far too often overlooked) point that having a conversation doesn’t much matter unless it becomes the building block for a relationship. I particularly like tip 7, which suggests actively working on a repertoire of entertaining stories. Whether it’s a practice-related war story or a funny story about your kids, knowing how to tell a story well can pave the way for a great connection.

21 Conversations Starters Professionals Can Use to Break the Ice provides seven topics you might use to get conversation going and outlines a four-step process for good conversation: “One: Ask them appropriate, relevant questions about themselves — known as ‘conversation starters.’ Two: Practice active, appreciative listening. Three: Share brief, reflective relevant comments about yourself. And four: Repeat the process.”

Must Know Body Language Tips for Networking Events recommends watching the feet in a networking setting. It’s an unusual proposition, but a valuable a 3-minute video.

Using these tips will help you in both business and business-social networking opportunities. Choose strategically which functions to attend, prepare yourself to initiate conversations, and initiate good follow-up … And you’ll be ready to make the most of holiday networking.

Legal Business Development: How to Avoid Amassing Untouched Stacks of Business Cards That You Should Use for Follow-up (But Probably Won’t)

Here’s how it happens…

You get back to your office, having met some interesting new contacts, armed with their business cards and good intentions of following up.  You take those cards, maybe flip through them to remind yourself of who’s most interesting, and then you put them somewhere safe, so you won’t forget.  My “safe spot” was always on a bookcase just behind my desk.  Yours might be your credenza or your desk drawer.

You think about following up with your new contacts.  You want to find just the right opener.  Something personal, to help recall your conversation, or better yet something you can share that brings value and is connected to your conversation.

And then you get distracted by a deadline or a phone call or someone dropping by your office with a quick question.  Your thoughts shift to the task in front of you, and you remind yourself that you need to get back to that stack of cards.

The cycle repeats itself over the next few hours or days or even weeks.  Having delayed this long to get in touch with your new contacts, you feel a pressure to have a strong follow-up.  “Nice to meet you” just doesn’t cut it after two weeks, does it?  But the memory of the conversations is getting dimmer, and you’re finding it harder and harder to come up with a good enough follow-up.  Plus those distractions just keep coming.

And then, weeks or months later, you look at the stack of cards, sigh, and throw them away, resolving to do better next time.  And you rationalize it.  The contact wasn’t that interesting.  The opportunity wasn’t that promising.  Besides, they didn’t contact you either.  Networking is a two-way street, and if they didn’t do their part, it’s ok that you never quite got around to the follow-up.

Sound familiar?  Here are three steps you can use to shift this experience, follow up consistently, and get better results from your networking.

  1. Make a few notes immediately after networking so you can remember your new contacts.  As soon as you leave the meeting, jot a few key words on the back of your new contact’s business card.  If you’re a talker, dictate your notes using a service that will email a transcript to you right away.  (You can find multiple apps, or use a service like LegalTypist.)  Import the notes into a contact management system so you can use them for initial follow-up and to lay the groundwork for future contact.
  2. Have a deadline for your follow-up, with a personal “no extension” policy.  Resolve that you will follow up within one or two days at the absolute outside, no matter what.  (Nancy Fox suggests using the 30 minutes after a meeting for follow-up.)  Set your deadline in advance and make it a part of your follow-up system.Extra credit:  plan “connection time” at least twice a week.  Use it for follow-up when you’ve met new contacts, or to connect with someone on your “A list” of contacts if not.
  3. Use a template to make your initial contacts easier.  Use a template that you adapt to the circumstances, so your follow-up is always personal but never created from scratch.  Having a starting point makes it much more likely you’ll get the initial follow-up done, whether your system calls for follow-up by telephone, email, or handwritten note.

Once you’ve make your initial follow-up contact, calendar your next contact.  You may not get a response to your initial follow-up, so be sure you know when you’ll be back in touch and how you’ll make that contact.

Networking without follow-up is a waste of time.  Consistency builds relationships, and successful business development requires relationships, not just contacts.  Implement your follow-up system today — especially if you have business cards collecting dust!