Odds are, you didn't get into your profession so you could make sales. You became an acupuncturist to help people heal. You became an architect because you love to design and build things. You became a lawyer because your parents made you (just kidding!). But in the process, you discovered that if you wanted to make a living or make partner, you had to learn how to find your own clients and build your "book of business." It's not what you signed up for, but you're stuck with it. So the graybeards tell you to get out there and hit "networking events." But will cowering in the corner at a Bar Association meeting actually translate into new clients? Here are eight ways to make it count.
1) Research the attendees and the format. If you're a lawyer, you've got about 2,000 hours to bill this year. You don't want to waste time at crappy events where you listen to a speaker, talk to no one, and then go home. Find out two things. First, what's the format? Is there time for mingling before or afterward? In terms of developing connections, that's more important than listening to the speaker, so if you have limited time, just go for that. Second, see if you can get a list of RSVPs. Odds are, you've got a good idea of the types of people who can help you. Attorneys specializing in elder care and estate planning issues would love to meet financial planners who can refer clients their way, and real estate attorneys ought to be hanging out wherever the developers are. If you can identify specific people you'd like to meet -- and research their bios beforehand so you have something to talk about -- that's even better.
2) Try to score an intro. If you literally don't know anyone in the room, go the tried-and-true route -- approach people standing by themselves and make awkward small talk ("Come to these things often?") or sneak into the periphery of a large group and try to join in. Stay away from twosomes, because who knows who's dating whom, and that could be awkward. But if at all possible, hit these events with a wingman -- a colleague, or even better, a senior colleague who knows more people -- and ask them if they'd be willing to introduce you around. It's not much of a hassle for them, makes them feel useful, and you've got instant "borrowed credibility" in your encounters.
3) Find your commonality. Your mission? In 90 seconds or less, try to find something -- anything --y ou have in common with your new friend. It's a fact: People like people like themselves. If you've been able to research them beforehand, that's a good head start. But even if you haven't, slip in some interesting questions (without making it sound like too much of an interrogation). Maybe you went to the same school, or live in the same neighborhood, or have similar hobbies (it's perfectly okay to ask what they like to do for fun). Even if you actually have nothing in common, you still do a good job of engaging them if you're reasonably well-rounded. They live in the North End? Mention your favorite Italian restaurant, and ask which one they prefer. They just got back from a trip to Iceland? You can ask whether they made it to the hot springs. Their field is intellectual property law? Always good to check in about the latest struggles with online piracy or Chinese knockoffs. Asking good, informed questions (you don't have to be an expert -- just read the newspaper) is half the battle.
4) Find a reason to keep in touch. You can have a great conversation over your shrimp cocktail -- but if you don't have a reason to keep in touch, it could be another year before you run into your new buddy again, at which point she's probably forgotten you. Find a way to keep the connection alive. Maybe you're thinking of going to Iceland and want to email her for hotel recommendations. Or you read a great article last week in The Economist you think he'd like. Find a reason to follow up, and preferably do something nice or helpful for them (send them information, help their kid get an internship, provide a referral).
5) Capture their data. Giving out your business card is fine. But in case you hadn't noticed, most people are flaky, and won't email you even if they promise to. Get theirs, instead. That way, you're in control of the situation. Even better, make sure to write down salient details of your conversation on the back of their card that night (Iceland trip, lives in North End, IP) and then record it in a database so you don't forget it. Those details are the cornerstone of building a relationship. If they don't have a card, ask where they work and say you'll look them up online and email them the next day -- and do it.
6) Fast track or slow track? If your new friend seems like a good networking prospect (they could either hire you or refer you to people who can hire you), follow up after sending them your "item of interest" by asking them out for coffee. On your coffee date, you can find out more about them and their needs, and -- soft sell, people! -- mention that in case they ever run into folks who need X, Y, or Z, you happen to do that and it would be great if she could send them your way. Of course, they may want to talk more explicitly about ways you can work together, which is great -- you can follow their cues. If you think there's less networking value (they're not a buyer or a recommender), you can give them a call to follow up, mention that you'd love to keep in touch, and mention you have an e-newsletter that might be of interest (it has articles that relate to their field, etc.) and ask if you can add them. Odds are, they'll say yes, and it's a good "passive strategy" to keep you in their thoughts in case they run into someone who needs your services.
7) Keep an eye out. "Hit and run networking" -- meeting people once at an event, and then never talking again -- has pretty much zero value in terms of generating clients. You're only going to refer someone to a person you trust, and how much trust can you create in a 10-minute encounter? So stay in touch. This doesn't require a huge investment of time -- but it does mean being thoughtful, periodically reviewing your database to refresh your memory about key facts, and keeping your eyes open. If, two months after meeting "Sally" at the Chamber of Commerce event, you send her an article about Icelandic tourism, it shows you're interested in her as a person, considerate, and friendly. Plus, it puts you back into her thoughts and gives her a new reason to consider whether her company might need your services.
8) Don't be afraid to ask for referrals. If you're not a "sales type," this can seem about as crass and craven as it gets. But it doesn't have to be. People who have a real relationship with you -- people you've built something with, and not just met for 10 minutes at a party -- genuinely want to help you. You can even blame someone else for making you ask, but do it. It'll put you ahead of 95 percent of your colleagues who don't. To wit: Sally, hope you're doing well. I'm glad you liked the Iceland article I sent a while back. I'm trying to map out my vacation schedule for next year, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed June might work for me to finally make it over there. How's everything else going for you? I'd love to hear an update about you. By the way, I should also mention (my firm is trying to get us disciplined about this!) that in case you ever hear of anyone who's looking for legal assistance around mergers and acquisitions, it would be great if you'd consider sending them our way. Thanks in advance, and please let me know how you're doing.
The secret to getting new clients from networking events? Use "networking" to build real relationships -- and your new friends and colleagues will want to do business with you and send business your way.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.