As most good rainmakers know, it is all about networking, and sometimes this means talking to people who are total strangers. It can be daunting to attend an event that your firm is sponsoring or a conference that your target market attends and be expected to “go out there and make new friends.” There are ways you can make this easier on yourself and be more strategic about how you use these opportunities.
First of all, it is good to have a purpose. Set some goals you would like to accomplish while you are there. These goals can be things like meet at least two people who I do not know or ask someone I know to introduce me to at least three people they know. By doing this, you will have a goal in mind when you walk in the room and it will distract you from being nervous or feeling awkward about showing up where you may not know anyone.
It’s also good to keep in mind that you are not there to actually hand someone an engagement letter. You are just there to learn enough about someone else that you have a reason to get back together with them or stay in touch with them. So, take the pressure off yourself and just try to talk to people about things that will give you enough information to have a jumping off point for another conversation.
Another idea that may help put you at ease is to think of yourself as someone who is attending to put people together. You are there so that you can help. You are the host/hostess and want to make sure everyone has a good time and meaningful conversations. When you talk to these “perfect strangers,” you will be asking them questions so you can introduce them to others. An example might be that you start talking to Fred. You ask him what he likes to do when he’s not working and he says skydiving. You see another person you want to meet, so you say, “I’d like you to meet Fred. He skydives. Oh, and by the way, I’m Julie.”
Part of your goal setting may be to try to find a particular person you want to meet who is planning to attend. For many events, especially ones your firm sponsors, you can get the attendee list ahead of the event. Look at it and see if any of your prospects are on it. If so, one of your goals is to ask around to find someone who knows this person and can introduce you. If you can’t get the list ahead of time, look to see who is on the organization’s board of directors. There may be some people on their board that you would like to meet. It is a great way to break the ice with someone you don’t know by simply asking them if they know the person you are trying to find.
Have some good questions in mind to ask once you introduce yourself to someone. Chit-chat and talking about the weather might be great for purely social situations, but you are there to meet your next big client. Ask questions that are going to be engaging enough that you have a reason to talk to this person again. Some examples are:
• What is the most exciting thing happening at your company right now?
• What do you like most about what you do?
• What is the most challenging thing happening in your industry?
• What made you decide to attend this event?
• How do you like this event compared to others you have attended recently?
• What is the profile of your typical customer/client?
You also want to have an exit strategy. You don’t want to get stuck talking to the same person for the duration of the event. To avoid this, there are a couple things you can do. One is to approach pairs or small groups, not people standing by themselves. By talking to two people who are already talking, you can easily break away from them without leaving someone standing alone.
If you are stuck with one person, introduce them to someone you know that happens to be nearby and then tactfully excuse yourself and move on. Or if you have asked the right questions you will know what kind of person they would like to meet. Help them find that person and introduce them, then move on.
If you try all this and it feels much better, congratulations, you have survived the first phase of this process. You attended the event and you have made a few connections. It isn’t time to stop now. Ask yourself these questions:
• Did I meet someone who I can continue a conversation with over coffee, breakfast or lunch?
• Did I meet someone who can help introduce me to a prospect?
• Did I have at least one productive conversation that will enable me to contact this person to help them solve a problem?
• Did I find at least one of the people on my prospect list that I was looking for?
Hopefully, you can say “yes” to at least one of these questions. If you can, then the next steps are up to you. Follow up and continue the relationship-building process. Set a time to get back together with your new connections in a few weeks or a month. Before you know it, you will be well on your way to finding a new client or good referral source.
Turning dread into a purpose that you have prepared for will change the way you look at the role you play when confronted with attending your next event. Maybe a room full to strangers won’t result in you feeling excited and energized, but it will no longer freak you out.•
Dona Stohler of S2 Law Firm Strategies provides consulting services on business development and marketing for law firms. Stohler has more than a decade of experience in the legal services industry and is the past chair of the U.S. Law Firm Group marketing committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through www.S2lawfirmstrategies.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.