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Networking at Conferences

I recently attended a conference for Orthodox Jewish Builders Association, and it’s always time well spent for me. For starters it’s a community I identify with (if the yarmulke didn’t already give that away), but it’s also a great opportunity to meet people face to face and get to know them.

Of course, I’m not in the construction business, but by virtue of what I do, people are always looking to build on their success or understand what’s keeping them from success, no matter what line of work they are in. In fact, if you’re reading this and you are not a salesperson, I challenge you to read through my blogs — even the ones about sales in particular — and realize that the message can ring true for anyone. At some point in any career, you have to sell yourself, present yourself as a valuable commodity to do business with. After all, isn’t that what a job interview is?

Which brings me back to the conference. Many people go to see vendors — sellers — to gather information on their products and services. Others attend for the guest speakers or educational opportunities offered for their industry. I go to meet people I could sell to as well as collaborate with. However, I don’t just show up with a bunch of business cards and hope for the best. That is a recipe for failure.

So, here’s how to look at a conference as a means to build on your success, and how to strategize:

Know Yourself, Know Your Audience

Before you pack, weeks ahead of time, ask yourself what you can offer. What are your skills, strengths and experience. Then ask yourself how those things will mesh with the audience you will be meeting. Whether they are the vendors at the booths, or other people walking around, there is a common interest underlying their being there. How can you fit into that picture?

Write down what you can say, and include specific experiences. You can’t simply walk into a medical conference and expect people to want to collaborate with you if you can’t relate to them. Even if you didn’t have contact with the medical industry prior, but you want to branch out to include it, come prepared with similar experiences that apply to people from any walk of life.

That said, please do some homework. Learn about what issues the organization or field is facing. What jumps out at you that makes you say “I can help with this!”? Read, read, read....become familiar with people, companies and even terminology that lets people know you’ve shown interest.

Get There Early

Arrive in the first half hour if you people are registering, you can strike up a conversation over coffee. This is not the time to simply observe, although that can prove helpful.

If you’ve done the work ahead of time, you already know some of the issues you can talk about, with even a little authority. As I’ve always encouraged clients, your ability to show genuine interest in people will lead to success.

Ask Questions

Remember this topic? Asking the right questions shows that you took the time to learn about someone’s or a company’s concerns. Asking questions shows

  • You are willing to put them first

  • You want their input on a topic

  • You are humble enough to admit you want to learn more

  • You share a common interest

Questions are also your “in” to getting first-hand information about what people want, what they struggle with, and just as importantly what they don’t want. That saves both of you a lot of time, especially if you realize in talking with them that you aren’t a good fit.

However, keep in mind that while you might not do business with them, that you are a potential resource. Let’s say you attended the same conference I did, and you do marketing services. The manufacturer you struck up a conversation with is not a great fit, but in speaking with them, you realize they have a need that one of your other clients can fulfill. Your opportunity is now to become a resource for them to refer them to someone else.

Do you think that manufacturer will remember that courtesy, especially if the matchmaking you did proves to be extremely beneficial? Of course! They may know other colleagues who could use you, and will return the favor in referring them to you.

Take Notes

Before you hand over your business card to someone, jot down a few words to help them remember why they have it in their coat pocket. At these types of events, it’s easy to sit down at the end of the day and forget who half of these people were, what you talked about and why you bothered to keep their card in the first place, and it gets tossed. Don’t let that happen to your business card.

Of course, you will do the same to the cards you receive from people, especially those you made it a point to ask them for their card. Include everything, even the personal asides that you gained from them. Maybe they mentioned they were a big football fan of a team you also follow, and you shared stories about that. Don’t underestimate the power of that information to help you create a relationship down the road. It places focus on the person instead of profit, which goes a long way to present you as an authentic and caring person.

If you listened to any presentations, take good notes. It’s part of your knowledge gathering to use in future encounters with people in the industry. As most presentations include a Q&A session, pay attention to questions that are asked. What has people the most interested and the most concerned? It’s all good background knowledge to use in conversations.

Post Conference: Making it Count

So, now you’re home, tired, and unpacked. There sits the stack of cards on your desk. What to do with them?

I work with a CRM called ACT, and my next task is to create a record of each person and company I talked with and kept their card. I will also include any notes that I jotted down on the business card. It helps them to remember who I was when I correspond with them.

A few days after the conference, I reach out to these people, usually via email, just reminding them of our conversation and reiterating how I can help them. I may also have had other ideas come to me and I include those to help increase my potential value to them. I give them some incentive to continue the conversation as well, like a free download or consultation phone call.

Overall, I want you to understand the value of the face-to-face meetings you get in a conference setting. Your goal should never be to leave with all of your business cards depleted, but to have a good amount of other people’s cards that you feel will truly be a good fit for you. Your work is just beginning once you get home, but if you’ve done things well and with the spirit of authenticity and genuine interest, the work will prove incredibly fruitful, not just for your pocket book, but for your own understanding of people and their concerns.