Networking Beautiful: Tips for Building Your Social Capital Through Authentic Relationships

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Networking is the crux of the top events in the restoration industry. As someone who works for a company that puts on several events each year, I can attest to the fact that no matter how much networking is built in, people are almost always happy for more.

Several years ago, I joined the RIA Convention and Industry Expo* Planning Committee (*this year’s event will be April 24-26 in Orlando). At the end of each show, we request feedback from participants including what to offer the following year. Guess what the number one suggestion is? MORE NETWORKING!

I have spent several years trying to identify innovative ways to offer additional networking opportunities. But here is the kicker: whether it’s a Violand event or an RIA one, roughly half the time built into it is strictly dedicated to networking! It occurred to me, the issue isn’t the opportunity to network, it’s that people don’t know how to network effectively. As an industry, it’s time to rectify this and work together to overcome our biggest challenges.

The inability of our industry to network is so glaring that the RIA is bringing in an expert to be the keynote speaker for their 2023 convention. Jim Ryerson is the founder of Sales Octane and a bestselling author. When asked about the importance of networking, he replied, “Networking is returning like a tidal wave, and restoration professionals need to be front and center engaging with peers, vendors, and customers as well as other connections to help grow their business. Whether you are an owner, salesperson, or operations leader I will be sharing several techniques to not only improve your networking skills but also help you grow your network and your knowledge.”

When done correctly, networking helps you create new opportunities, develop meaningful relationships, share ideas, and gain confidence. It can provide a conduit for conversations with like-minded peers on ways to get paid faster, build commercial sales, take advantage of new technology, and the elusive recruiting and hiring conundrum. Better yet, it can provide a venue for you to share your ideas with others, thereby helping them to elevate their company.

There is no shortage of industry tradeshows and conventions. Attending one or more a year to help you work on your business will provide you a distinct advantage over those that choose to constantly stay home to work in their business. But simply attending doesn’t maximize your time and financial investment. Taking a proactive approach to networking while there does. Don’t think the event planners can do it for you; they are a little busy facilitating the event. You must make a conscious decision to meet and interact with as many people as you can, even those who lean heavily on the introverted side of the scale. By doing so you will learn more about the industry, find strategic partners, expand your network of experts, and strengthen already existing relationships.

To help you forge your networking ability and confidence, here are 12 helpful tips. To provide further personal insight, I have asked Mandy Rewis, Business Development Leader for AnswerForce (also a member of the RIA Convention and Industry Expo Planning Committee) to weigh in with strategies she uses when attending a conference for the first time—the same strategies that have helped her build her impressive network.

1. Identify Your Goal For Attending

Do not wait until the event to decide what problems and opportunities you want to tackle. Have a plan for what types of individuals you want to meet, conversations you are looking to conduct, and specific issues you are hoping to address. You will be too busy, and probably too mentally drained, to try to figure this out on site.

Mandy’s Advice – When embarking on this journey in a new industry or as a first-time attendee, it is important to get in the mindset that you are going to interact with people that you have never met before and it’s okay to talk to strangers!

2. Research the Event and Ask for Help Ahead of Time

Every industry tradeshow offers a detailed website loaded with useful information. Know the purpose and size of the event. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the conference organizers and introduce yourself, letting them know the types of people you want to meet. Ask them for an introduction to anyone they feel can offer a stimulating conversation on the topics you are most interested in. Convention planners love this! They may even be willing to provide you with names of attendees. This will save you valuable time and energy during the event.

Mandy’s Advice – Doing research ahead of time can go a long way. We have amazing tools at our disposal such as Google, LinkedIn, and Alignable. Follow the events page and see who is attending, then try to connect. If the event has an app, download it, and see if they have a place where you can chat with other attendees. Create your profile and start messaging people you want to meet. Even if it is just a quick, “I am excited for the event. I hope to meet you there!” 

3. Memorize the Agenda and Actively Engage in Sessions

Too often I see attendees staring at their phones while wondering out loud where they are supposed to be or skipping sessions in favor of meandering the hallways looking for something to do. Most shows are 2-3 days. They go by fast. This doesn’t mean attend everything but know which sessions will provide you value and get to them early to grab a good seat. Professionally engage. Others will notice you and be more likely to approach, bringing you into conversations you may not have thought about prior.

Mandy’s Advice –  Write your plan in a document before you go. Some events may have multiple tracks and it helps to have a game plan ahead of time with the sessions you want to attend – there’s so much going on, you can’t remember it all!  Include networking breaks and lunch so that you are aware of those opportunities and can maximize your engagement. Also look for special gatherings or events that may be of interest to you, such as the Women in Restoration Breakfast or a golf tournament. These are great activities that will help you with building relationships. 

4. Practice Starting Conversations

Most conversations at shows start the same way: “What do you do, and where are you from?” What you get are boring, canned answers. If you want to grab the other person’s attention, ask them open-ended questions they may not expect. Questions like, “What are you most proud of in your company?” or “Tell me about the best decision you made in your business last year” or “What has been your favorite presentation so far and why?” People love to talk about themselves, especially at shows where egos tend to emerge. Give them the freedom to do so. It leads to better dialogue.

Mandy’s Advice – A hello and a handshake still go a long way. It is a great way to start a conversation and show that you are open to talk. My favorite conversation starter is to ask what’s the most important thing they’ve learned so far at the event.

5. Bring Business Cards — Lots of Them

You would think this is self-evident, but I can tell you from experience that it’s not. Don’t be that person!

Mandy’s Advice – Even in an era where everything is going digital, it brings a memorable experience to put a business card in someone’s hands. Challenge yourself to give away all the cards that you bring. It helps with mentally preparing you to have many conversations. Always try to get the other person’s contact information in return. If you’re using LinkedIn, make sure you have the QR code open on the LinkedIn app ready so someone can scan it during a conversation instead of having to search your name.. This helps with keeping in touch after the event.

6. Be Open to Everyone

Shows offer you opportunities to speak with well-known industry leaders, but their time is generally already filled up with meetings and networking events. Many of the best conversations will be with people you have never heard of before. Everyone at the show is an expert in something. Take time to find out what that is. Some of the best relationships I have in the industry are with people I met randomly at a tradeshow and struck up a conversation with.

Mandy’s Advice – When attending an event for the first time, everyone you meet is a new opportunity to build a new relationship. Be a sponge and take in the information.

7. Be Prepared to Talk About What You Are Good At

Networking is very much about learning new things, but it can’t be one way. Relationships are best built when both parties benefit. Don’t shy away from offering up helpful tips about what is working for you and your company. There are very few proprietary silver bullet secrets in restoration. Our strength as an industry is through collective resources. Be part of the solution and give back.

Mandy’s Advice – Be confident! If you are attending the event, that means your company feels you are an ambassador for them. If you do not know much about the industry yet, do not shy away from sharing your story of how you got there. Remember, everyone had a starting point!

8. Know How to Get Out of a Conversation

There is no nice way to say this, but at every show you will end up in a “time suck” conversation where you have reached a point that no additional value is being had by either party, but the other person just keeps talking or standing there. Politely excuse yourself by letting them know you need to make a phone call, attend another meeting, or use the restroom. As mentioned earlier, these shows go by fast and unless you are an extreme extrovert, they are exhausting. Save yourself time and energy by knowing how and when to duck out professionally. (Side note: learn to recognize if you are being that time suck person! If someone politely excuses themself, don’t follow them. It’s weird and they will not want to converse with you in the future.)

Mandy’s Advice – Body language plays an important role when it comes to getting out of a conversation. Creating distance between yourself and the other person usually indicates that you are ready to move on. Additionally, moving your gaze away from theirs also assists with sending social queues that the conversation is coming to an end. It is important to exist cordially and an easy way to do this is to say, “It was a pleasure speaking with you, and I will catch you later” as you begin to move away.

9. Utilize Vendors

Shows have vendors there to help offset the costs. Understandably, no one wants to be “sold to” all the time, but vendors are experts in the product or service they provide and usually have a large network of industry professionals they know at the show. Strike up conversations with them not just about what they are selling but also about the industry. Ask them to introduce you to similar companies. Usually, they will be taking a small group out somewhere for a nice dinner. Play your cards right and you may be invited to join. Those dinner conversations are traditionally the most powerful.

Mandy’s Advice – Whether you’re new or have been in the industry for years, conversations with vendors are a must. Good vendors are knowledgeable about the industry as well as their services. Ask them questions about who they’re speaking to, other events they’re going to, and what they’ve learnt from the event. We’re always happy to talk about the industry as well as how we can help you! 

10. Be Courteous of the Hotel and Event Staff

Simple rule of thumb, if other see you get upset or rude, they will not want to network with you. Yes, mistakes happen. If they do, laugh it off and focus your energy on what you set out to do. People prefer to interact with someone who has a smile on their face and makes others feel better about themselves.

Mandy’s Advice – It takes a lot to pull off a great event and that includes the hotel and event staff.  Make it a point to introduce yourself to the event staff because many times your interaction started with them during registration. If there are any issues you have, give them the opportunity to rectify them. Also say thank you to them – let them know you appreciate their hard work!

11. Don’t Neglect the Hotel Bar

Participants at tradeshows tend to have their walls up slightly during the program. But at the end of the evening, many will relax and unwind and this is an opportune time to meet people. Buy someone a drink and they will be inclined to reciprocate with a conversation. And for anyone who does not drink alcohol, no one cares. Don’t use that as an excuse not to head down to the bar. No one will remember if you drank club soda instead of Titos. Of course, they will remember if you have a dozen or so of those Titos …

Mandy’s Advice – The hotel bar is a melting pot of event attendees and other people staying at the hotel. Some of your most memorable conversations occur at the hotel bar. Most people who go there are in a mood for socializing and open to conversation.

12. Write Down Notes from Conversations and Send Follow-Up Thank Yous

The better you get at networking, the more conversations you will have which will inevitably get jumbled up or lost in your mind shortly thereafter. Write down the person’s name, company, contact info, and any interesting tidbits about them and the conversation you had to help you remember. Then go the extra step and send a follow-up email referencing the conversation and thanking them for their time. Better yet, send a handwritten thank you card. It takes the same amount of time and offers 10 times the value.

Mandy’s Advice – Leverage social media to help build on the connections that you’ve made. LinkedIn is a great platform to nurture relationships. Sending a quick note to them when requesting to connect is a helpful reminder of where they met you.

There is a famous Chinese Proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”  Networking is the same. Don’t wait until you have a problem to try to build a network to help you find a solution. Attend industry events and be proactive in building that network. Even if someone can’t provide much for you now, you never know about the future. One of my first industry conventions was the RIA show in 2013. One of the first connections I made was a young couple in North Carolina in the process of taking over the family business. They were there to learn more about the industry, just as I was. We became friends over the years. It was Katie and Josh Smith of PHC Restoration in Lillington, NC. Today, Katie is president of the RIA and she and Josh are two of my closest networking partners. They are great people to know for multiple reasons. Now go find your people and build your network.

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Jeff Jones & Mandy Rewis

Jeff Jones is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. Jeff has a wide range of experience in professional sales and marketing involving all levels of decision makers. Through VMA, Jeff works with companies to find the right mix of programs and services to help them develop their people and their profits. To reach him, visit Violand.com or call (800) 360-3513.

 

Mandy Rewis has been helping restoration businesses grow with AnswerForce for five years. Mandy understands the challenges small and medium-sized restoration business owners face on a daily basis and how 24/7 people-powered answering can help their businesses grow.

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