I don't keep it a secret that I make my living as an IT consultant, and the word is definitely out — no family get-together, business association meeting, chamber event, or other small business meet-and-greet goes by that I'm not pulled aside and asked computer questions. When closing a recent refinance deal, I even asked the attorney who managed her office's technology needs. I described the services my shop provides and gave her my business card. I always ask for others' business cards, too; you never know when one client may need the services of another local business owner. As they say at Business Network International (BNI), "Givers gain."
Six business networking tips
Unless you're independently wealthy and have an unlimited marketing budget, business networking events present one of the best opportunities for gaining new clients and growing your business. And, in an economic environment in which some long-successful clients are going out of business, it's important to always seek new customers.
But if marketing your business and services doesn't come natural to you, this is a problem. Others will pick up on your unease, the resulting awkwardness, and the subsequent pained and pregnant pauses when you attempt conversation. You need to feel capable, confident, and charismatic. Unless you're a rookie IT consultant, you're already a smooth operator — you just don't know it.
If you remember these six simple tips, the next business network event you attend will proceed smoothly.1. Remember that the technology component is the toughest part of this business.
Talking to people is easy. If you've been in business and existing clients are happy with your service, you've likely already begun mastering the most difficult challenges IT professionals face. Don't place too much pressure to talk to X number of people — just go with the event's energy flow. For some meet-ups, that may mean introducing yourself to 15 - 20 people or more. For other events, it may mean forging a relationship with a single contact.2. You don't have to start by talking about yourself.
If you have trouble initiating conversation with strangers, just ask what they do. It's simple. For instance, I might say, "Hello, my name is Erik. What brings you to today's networking event?" or "Hi, my name's Erik; what line of work are you in?" Be sure to use your name; when you do, people will open up, tell you their name, and describe their business. Ask for their business card. When they ask what you do, tell them; if they don't ask, and there's a pause in the conversation, just tell them. Explain a crazy technology story that's recently proved arresting. Humor's always a great method of breaking the ice, such as "certainly you've never had any computer trouble before, right?" Everyone around may well laugh knowingly.3. Be yourself.
I don't subscribe to the theory that you need to attend motivational or public speaking classes to become an effective networker. Whenever you're asked to talk about things that interest you, I suspect you have no trouble becoming enthusiastic. That's why being a technology consultant is a good thing — everyone can relate to the problems and issues we fix, and that's where our interest lies, so that's a good match.4. Relax.
No one's going to chop your head off. Introduce yourself, ask what others do, and inevitably others will ask about your line of work. There's no pressure. It doesn't matter if you're addressing a CEO or an administrative assistant; as long as you're respectful, avoid bad words, and are polite, good things will follow. You don't have to feel like The Office's Michael Scott — that is, worried you'll reveal a deep secret (in Scott's case, the fact is his business is broke). Remember that IT consultants provide services that are very much in demand.5. Carry business cards with you — everywhere.
I get stopped in parking lots, at church, at movie theaters, and in other locations by folks who know my office provides IT service. I always provide them with business cards. You'd think everyone would have business cards at a networking event, but I'm surprised at how often others must promise to forward me their contact information later by email, as they have no business cards handy. Better yet, keep your business cards within easy reach. My front right pants pocket always has a few, as does my car console, laptop bag, and coat.6. Follow up.
A wise executive once taught me the value of hand-written thank you cards, but I believe that email has finally supplanted such traditional correspondence. Whenever you meet new contacts, send them a personalized email (not a prepackaged form message) and remind them of the services your IT consultancy provides. This is another occasion to leverage your personality, so be sure to take advantage of this networking opportunity.
Related TechRepublic resources
- Make sure your business plan includes a targeted marketing strategy
- Marketing, networking work hand-in-hand for consultants
- Marketing your services as a consultant
- Six tips for networking to success
- Add client shopping to your weekly to-do list
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.