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Networking tips: How to prospect for new business without losing your soul

27th January 2022

Your company’s growth depends on your ability to sell and get new customers through the door quickly.  But many of us recoil from the thought, let alone action, of selling, networking and prospecting for new business. 

Louisa Clarke, partner at The Caffeine Partnership and co-author of Catalyst: Using Personal Chemistry to Convert Contacts Into Contracts, joined us for a keynote event to demystify the science and art of business development and to provide practical advice on how to catalyse relationships that will win you new clients. Bristol Creative Industries editor Dan Martin summarises her brilliant tips.

We all know the cheesy theories and tactics that many so-called experts share when talking about business development. For Louisa, all that management speak makes prospecting for new business sound “academic and joyless”, when it’s actually simply about people and human relationships. 

Louisa’s book relates business development to a catalyst, a process to make a chemical reaction happen more quickly, without changing the catalyst itself. 

She believes the job of business development “is to be a person whose enthusiasm and energy causes others to be more friendly, enthusiastic and energetic in response”. 

When two people share a special connection, they develop a rapport. The person then develops an impulse to feel a need to see that person again. “Business development is about catalysing relationships, creating connections between human beings that change fortunes,” Louisa explained. 

The importance of networking

“Business development is really just about staying in touch with people and being helpful in a conscious, methodical way”, Louisa said.

To find those people in the first place is where networking comes in.

But the thought of networking, selling and prospecting for new business fills many people with dread. They feel “entrapped and pressurised”, Louisa said, and even if they do form new contacts, “they struggle to turn them into something more commercial because how do you go from contract to contract without losing your soul?”

The danger is you fall into the trap of becoming a professional networker, Louisa warned. We all know at least one of them. The person who makes it all about them, who when talking to you scans the room for someone more interesting, who never follows up and who never says thankyou if you help them.” 

So how can you avoid being one of those people and become an effective networker? Here are Louisa’s tips. 

You need to show up

If you have that fear of networking, you have to get over it because you have to get out there. The first step is showing up. 

You need to be wherever your potential clients are, be it conferences, events, trade show dinners or even the queue at an airport. 

Louisa challenged attendees to force themselves to say ‘yes’ to every invitation they get in a month and force themselves to show up. 

Overcome the fear of rejection

Most people have a fear of rejection which, Louisa said, stops us from making the first move so we stick with what and who we know. 

But think about the first time you met your best friend, your life partner, your long standing client; all the best relationships start with someone being brave enough to make the first move and someone else reacting positively to the person who had that courage.”

Louisa continued: “When we ask about someone’s journey or the weather or what someone’s work is, what we’re really saying is ‘I’m friendly. Are you friendly?’, Or ‘can I get on with you?’ But it’s too weird to actually say that. So ‘what do you do?’ remains our stock phrase. 

“And it’s not what we say in reply that matters, but how we say it. We introduce ourselves so many times in the world of work, no wonder we can often sound bored about it. But the person opposite is hearing this for the first time. Make it interesting for them to hear.”

When someone asks you ‘what do you do?’, think about how you can answer it in an interesting way. Louisa gave the examples of the team at the Caffeine Partnership who say “we help impatient leaders grow their businesses and brands fast” and an executive coach who describes her work as “holding the mirror in front of clients until they start to really see themselves”. 

Stop selling, start helping

Louisa said that many people forget the golden rule: “Networking is about acting with the aim of advancing someone else’s agenda, not your own.”

She added: “The currency of effective networking is not personal or corporate greed, but generosity. When you are networking, there’s zero pressure on you to make a sale or close a deal. In fact, if you rush to sell and close the deal too soon in the relationship, you’ll find it counterproductive. Networking is about getting to know people and being helpful to them so that when they need you, you are there.”

Louisa shared an example: “I met a stranger at a dinner. We bonded over both being working mums and the conversation turned to a project she was struggling with. It was in the area of employee engagement which is one of our specialties. My radar was on and it sounded like something we could help with. 

“I then deployed one of my favourite new business questions: ‘Would it be helpful if….?’. ‘Would it be helpful if I sent you some examples of similar projects we’ve done?’, ‘sent you a book on the subject that my colleague wrote?’, ‘took a look at your brief and suggested how we could help?’ I didn’t try to sell, I just tried to help.”

Meet fellow creatives at the BCI Walk & Talk outdoor networking event on 4 March. Book now.

Cast your net wide

In these uncertain times, investing heavily in just a handful of key relationships is the wrong approach, Louisa said. Instead, cast your net as wide as possible. 

Louisa related a story of someone she met at an event where a colleague was delivering a speech. The woman said she knew the ‘Alan Sugar of Barbados’ and thought The Caffeine Partnership could help him. It sounded too good to be true but three months later, she got back in touch to set up a meeting. It led to a six month project that netted almost $1m in fees and four trips to Barbados.

That example shows you should never close the door on someone who wants to work with you, however far-fetched the opportunity may seem. You never know where it might lead, even to a beach in the tropics.

Take the pressure off

Talking to strangers when there’s no deal to be done or meeting to secure is much easier. That’s why you should take the pressure off yourself when prospecting for new business. If someone tells you what they do and you jump straight in with a sales pitch, you’ll come across as self interested, obvious that you’re after something and that you have selfish motives. 

“Treat every new acquaintance as a chance to practice your ability to build rapport rapidly,” Louisa said. “Don’t sell but help. What is it that you do that could be helpful to that person? Invest the effort in practising not because you’re manipulative, but because you’re in the business of making contacts and might be potentially of use to them. 

“The more contacts you make, the better you’ll become at making them. The more people will want your help and the easier it will be to get even more people to see you as a useful contact.”

Be a diligent farmer

Louisa said the best model for business developers to adopt is diligent farmers. 

“They work consistently, they never slack, they shepherd their flock and steer them from danger. They invest care and attention on each and every one of their charges. Their interests are best served by serving others’ interests brilliantly and when the time comes, they reap the benefits. 

“The simple secret to their success is that they create a relationship with their prospects that builds cumulatively over time, that by the time the potential buyer becomes an actual buyer, it’s a foregone conclusion that they will buy from the diligent farmer.”

Like farming, business is a long game. Too often, people only turn the new business tap on when the need for new revenue is urgent. “But if you are a diligent farmer, you will have a constant stream of potential clients who are not just in the market to buy now but are predisposed to buy from you because they’ve been looked after by you.”

Be consistent

“One of the secrets of high performance is consistency,” Louisa said. “All top performers, whether they’re comedians, Olympians, artists or CEOs, are more consistent than the rest of us. They show up to do the work whether they feel like it or not, they don’t procrastinate and they don’t make excuses. They just do it.”

This can be explained by what has become known as The Seinfeld Strategy.

It’s the story of a young American comedian at the start of his career who met global superstar comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He asked him for advice on how he could improve. Seinfeld replied that the way to be a better comic is to create better jokes. The way to create better jokes is to write every day. He asked the young comedian to get a big wall planner with a year on one page. With a big red pen, write a big red cross over the day. After a few days you’ll have a chain. Keep going and the chain grows longer every day. You’ll like seeing the chain especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.

“Notice that nothing was said about results,” Louisa said. “Nothing was said about the quality of the work. All that matters is not breaking the chain.” Consistency and developing a behaviour is the key to success.

According to a study by UCL published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days for new behaviour to become automatic. 

“In that spirit, start your prospecting activity with a 60 day plan,” Louisa advised. “This is less about filling in an activity for every single day but more about keeping yourself accountable for a set period. New business prospecting isn’t something you can turn off and on like a switch. It should be a constant stream of day to day activity.”

Network with fellow Bristol Creative Industries members at the BCI Walk & Talk outdoor event on 4 March. Don your walking boots and meet fellow creatives while enjoying the beautiful countryside around Bristol. Register here

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About Bristol Creative Industries

Bristol Creative Industries is the membership network that supports the region's creative sector to learn, grow and connect, driven by the common belief that we can achieve more collectively than alone. 

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