Opening new conversations with strangers at a networking event may feel at bit odd, or at least quite different from your everyday professional life, especially when you are in sales or have an objective to attend the event. Let’s explore the differences and how-to open a conversation at a networking event the right way.
You may have heard of the ABC-phrase: Always Be Closing**. The underlying idea of the ABC approach is that a sales professional ‘guides’ the prospect from initial consideration to buying the product by taking or ‘closing’ several steps in the sales funnel process. This ‘always be closing’ or ‘always looking for the next opportunity’ mindset is the everyday life for most sales professionals. Yet at networking events, I would suggest you don’t follow this practice.
Let me explain why. I used to work in business development and know how it feels to try to convert a prospect. On each call, I was trying to sound casual and objective, but somewhere in the back of my mind I would think: how can I ‘close’ this person to progress to the next step of the buying path? Whether it would be a commitment to include our agency to the tender process, or a consideration to buy the more expensive option compared to the cheaper alternative, each call had an ‘agenda’, even though I tried to phrase this friendly and relaxed to not scare them off.
This sales mindset may work well in the office. However, when you walk onto the networking floor thinking: ‘who could buy our product or service?’ and ‘how can we progress our sales tracks?’ just like you used to do at work, things may not work out so well as you might have hoped for, even though the apparent perfect prospect seems to be standing in front of you.
My advice in this blog post may sound counter-intuitive: forget about the sales objective when networking. Even when the type of person you usually try to chase via cold-calls, e-mails, LinkedIn invites, who is typically hard to get to and rarely returns your outreaches, stands in front of you, why wouldn’t you try to start the sales process? It seems to be an ideal scenario to bring up that perfectly crafted sales spiel, right? And then I ask you not to…
There are several reasons why not, even though it is so tempting and the opportunity seems to be gleaming.
Why opening conversations at a networking event is different.
Firstly, people are not going to networking events to be sold to. When they go to a tradeshow, yes they are there to inform themselves on latest developments, catch up with their peers, and also buy or at least check out what alternatives there are on the market, conveniently located in one place. They expect a sales pitch and are on the lookout to see if they can get a better deal for their business. But at a networking event, the goal is to make relevant contacts, not to buy relevant products or services (yet).
Secondly, you are showing to lower your standards in front of the person you are trying to gain respect from: if you are hunting for a sale, it shows that you are needy for that sale. If that becomes apparent, all other interesting aspects of your business and your thought leadership evaporates. Skipping the ‘why’ about your business will make it much harder to convince this prospect later on why they should buy from you over someone else.
Thirdly, your product or service is perhaps your number one focus in your professional life, but for the other person on the networking floor and anyone else, it really isn’t – I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings. Even if the prospect has entertained the idea of using your product or service, it is only one of many things that makes their business tick. Your product or service may be interesting to others, but just not as much as it is for you.
Fourthly, it looks like you have their un-diverted attention as you are talking together. In reality, the mind of the person you are talking with is a bit scattered: they already had a long day in the office and already had a few chats with others at the networking event. The other person may also be strategizing for themselves on whom they want to talk with next for their own networking goals, literally and figuratively keeping an eye out on the key people to speak with. So in practice, you don’t have the focused attention like you would have if you were talking to the same person in a sales demonstration meeting.
Fifthly and most importantly, when you start selling, they will pull up their guards. The moment people feel identified as a lead, they will act as a lead. How do leads act? Somewhere in the back of their mind, they know that the product or service may be useful for them, but at first, they will bring up all kinds of objections to test the validity of your arguments before they lean forward and listen. You don’t want the chat to shift from a pleasant conversation to an attempt to ‘conquer the fortress’ of objections to get your product or service into the lead’s mind.
The overarching key takeaway across all five points is that holding an enjoyable conversation at a networking event is most important. It would be best if you were opening a conversation in search of something interesting to talk about, not closing a conversation in search of prospects fitting in with your clientele. Closing people you meet on the networking floor sometimes happens at a later stage, but this should not be the focus on a networking event. To be successful in networking, you need to switch your mind from ‘always be closing’ to ‘always be opening’ conversations at a networking event.
Can I bring up my sales objective?
When you are asked ‘what do you do?’ it is okay to formulate something that also embeds your sales objective. There is a fine line between making known what kind of products or services you have on offer and trying to sell that product or service on the spot. A common, logical mistake many people make is that the ‘what do you do’ is interpreted as an invitation to sell to the other person. I’d suggest interpreting the ‘what do you do?’ question as: ‘what is your professional life about?’ instead of ‘please practice your sales pitch on me’.
Now I hear you say: ‘but what do I do when it looks like the other person I meet at a networking event would appreciate my product or service? How do I progress that conversation to a follow-up sales call? Or even better, how do I get access to people in their network, potentially wanting to buy from me?’ I am so glad you asked. Look out for my next posts, and I will dive into that problem in-depth.
The Always Be Closing sales approach
** the idea behind the Always Be Closing (ABC) method is to take steps which go from initial interest in the product or service, to the consideration stage, and then ultimately to buy the product or service. This sales funnel setup may have a few or many steps pending the complexity of the solution sold. It could include anything from downloading a whitepaper about the solution, to negotiation talks with many stakeholders in the boardroom. You want the prospect to agree (either verbally or at least mentally) to move forward in this funnel (close a step), for example from an initial discovery sales call to an in-person meeting. With each step taken (the sales step is ‘closed’), the final goal eventually is reached: buying. Then a juicy commission is made, and the sales professional is one step closer to achieving their target and hopefully a fancy bonus.