How to use business networking to grow your sales pipeline

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words “business networking”? If it’s of awkward small talk, nervous laughter and sweaty palms then you’re certainly not alone.

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Networking isn’t high on the agenda for many people, but if it came down to it what would you rather do: go out and meet potential new customers/clients or watch your sales pipeline dry up?

Business networking is a great way to generate leads and build those all-important business relationships. In fact, 78% of startups say that networking is vital to success — it’s who you know, not what you know, as the old saying goes.

Despite the mental image that most of us have about networking, you don’t need to be a flamboyant extrovert to get results. You just have to approach it in the right way. Here are three tips to help you do just that.

1. Identify your niche

Who do you want to meet? Finding the kinds of people you want to network with not only makes the whole process of networking easier, it gives you a better chance of making lasting connections.

If you’re looking to sell to small business owners, a local networking event is a good place to start. 9 in 10 people say small meetings are their favorite communication method so these events can be great for seeing the same faces and getting to know prospects in more depth. Local chamber of commerce events, referral groups and business association meetups are all more intimate gatherings and are held in most towns and cities.

If your solution is targeted towards larger companies, CEOs and directors should be your target audience. Big charity events, black-tie gatherings and industry conferences are good places to find this type of clientele.

If you’re a new business and attending networking events for the first time, start small and work your way up. Build your confidence and learn the etiquette at a local event before moving on to big conferences.

Use social networks (particularly LinkedIn and Meetup), local business association websites and online networking event listing sites to find events to attend.

2. Create a personal connection

Networking is no different to any other type of business interaction in that you want to make a personal connection as quickly as possible.

Personal connections help to form business relationships built on trust and these are exactly the kind of relationships you want in your pipeline.

Don’t rely on a simple hello and the exchanging of business cards to bring in sales. Instead, find someone to have a conversation with.

Making a good first impression is important. 72% of professionals say first impressions are impacted by appearance and handshake, so dress smart, smile and lead in with a friendly handshake.

Once you’re engaged in conversation, make it all about the prospect. Ask them about their business and show genuine interest in their answers. Then, ask the right questions based on those answers. The idea is to identify their pain points before getting into how your solution can help.

When it’s the right time to mention your product, explain what your product does, how it relates to the prospect’s problem and why it may be better suited to their business than the alternatives.

After each interaction you have, collect a business card and send a follow up thank you email that refers to the conversation. This helps to show that you care and that you were interested in helping. From here you can work on arranging an online chat or product demo.

3. Make the most of online networking

Meeting people face-to-face is the best way to build meaningful connections that boost your sales pipeline, but don’t forget about online networking.

84% of people prefer remote meetings, so being active in social networks and online communities is a great way to attract people that don’t bother with networking events.

There are Facebook and LinkedIn business groups and online networks for almost every niche. Find out which groups appeal to you and involve yourself in the conversation.

There’s a tendency in online networking for people to go in and talk about nothing but themselves and their product. Don’t do this. Instead, do as you would in a one-on-one conversation with a prospect: make it all about them.

Provide value. Contribute to discussions, answer questions and create topics for discussion. Showcase your knowledge and expertise in a helpful way and people will be more receptive when the time is right to explain how your product can help.

Get to know people within groups and communities and build relationships with the same people via email or over the phone to generate a steady flow of prospects in your sales pipeline.

The three rules of networking

Networking isn’t for everyone, but it’s a proven way to generate new business. Use a combination of business networking events and online communities to grow your pipeline, keeping these three rules in mind as you do:

1. Provide value — Understand a prospect’s problems and deliver relevant solutions.

2. Be nice — Never be anything less than friendly and helpful.

3. Follow up — Whether it’s with a call, email or online demo, always follow up on your conversations.