We overheard a comment the other day, that “so and so spends a lot of time going to meetings and networking events”. The speaker seemed critical of the person attending events, even though this person’s job involved establishing business relationships on behalf of an organization. It occurred to us that networking events is one of the most effective ways for SDMWVLGBTBE (Small, Disadvantaged, Disabled, Minority, Women, Veteran, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered Business Enterprise) owners to learn about their markets and competitors, make new contacts and keep themselves active in the minds of others.
But first, a word about business cards. Many people like to write notes directly on the business card as reminders. At several recent events we watched people struggle to make notes on high gloss or coated cards. While these shiny cards look really great, if your potential customer can’t make a quick note on your card, they might not remember why being in touch with you is a good idea … just something to consider next time you have a batch of cards printed.
Each month, there are probably dozens of events a SDMWVLGBTBE representative could choose to attend – from “how to do business with” seminars to national trade shows – so it makes sense to strategize and prepare in order to maximize your time for the best return. Some questions to consider as you prepare:
- Who do we buy from? Why? How did this relationship develop?
- What’s my business’s foot print – local, regional, national, international?
- Does my industry have a trade association? Don’t know? Here’s a way to find many of them.
- What’s new in our industry? Our city/county, region or state?
- What’s our competition doing?
For us, on question one we’ve learned over the years, we tend to do business with people we know and trust … whether we’re the company buying or selling. Technology is a wonderful thing, but filling out on-line forms, having email or text chats, preparing written proposals, using Bing or Google to research – not a single one of these activities does as much for our business as actual face-to-face conversations with other human beings. And, we find the greatest gatherings of other interesting human beings to be trade shows, education, volunteer or networking events. There is a huge cross-section of people at these events. People who may become casual acquaintances, friends, suppliers, referral sources, bidding partners or customers. All gathered in one space, with no gatekeepers to prevent us from talking with anyone we choose.
If the event is specific to your industry, you should be getting exposure to new products, services, trends and resources … learning the hot topics, what’s in, what’s on the way out and gain an understanding of what might be the best next actions for your company. This might be the best place to learn about the competition, pick up literature on what they’re doing so you can evaluate your business’s comparative strengths and weaknesses. Most trade shows have an educational component targeted to your industry that may help you learn techniques or tools to provide better support to your customers. And, you can visit booths to gather information on industry suppliers. On the other hand, if you are the potential customer, the trade show is an environment where you can immediately research many companies’ products, prices, and services, all in just one day.
Networking events tend to be broader in scope, not limited to a specific industry, but may be geographically specific or potentially service-related. At networking events, the goal is more about getting to know people. How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s not what you know it’s who you know”? About a bazillion, right? So how do you get to know people? At these events, you should be spending time listening to and talking with people, face-to-face interactions where you ask people about themselves and their businesses and answers questions about you and your industry. It has to be a two way exchange of information. If you are open, approachable (smile!), genuinely interested in those you meet and you offer to help others then the relationships you establish will become mutually beneficial. Help can be as simple as suggesting a restaurant, a magazine article, a book or another person to talk to — or remembering to refer someone to your new contact when you think it will help them. It seems like all the best opportunities are shared person-to-person, and this is how you expand your network.
Wish we could remember where we read “be memorable“. Whether you’re attending a trade show or networking event, you want people to remember you. Be visible within the dress code of the event. Do you have a signature color, a popping tie or piece of jewelry? Maybe add something that makes you stand out … an accessory that becomes a conversation starter (still thinking about the shoes from the last national conference) — we always wear our WBENC women-owned lapel pins!
You aren’t going to be meeting new people sitting behind your desk. As SDMWVLGBTBE businesses we need to be out and about, connecting.