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Networking & Business Development

Firstly, business development (BD) and networking are not marketing. Nor are they more important than marketing. They can be a result of marketing or linked to marketing, but marketing activities are quite different from the relationship building and development associated with networking.

I’ve had the privilege over the past eighteen years to experience a range of styles of what one of my colleagues used to call ‘making friends’. He was right. People want to do business with people. More importantly, people want to do business with people they like.



Networking: the very word used to strike terror into my heart. “You should do more networking” they’d say, and I’d think, ‘you should leave me alone and find someone else to terrorise’. But over time, and with practice, like anything else, it becomes far easier. More importantly, it’s an essential part of developing and growing any business, so if you’re able to do it, then you’re either more likely to have a successful business, or indeed a more successful career within a business.

Most people have, at some point, managed to find a girlfriend, boyfriend, or both. It’s unlikely they found that person by ‘selling’ something – or at least not consciously. Generally, they’ve interacted with people until they met someone they can connect and converse with easily. I often imagine networking as a similar process. You’re unlikely to immediately meet a million dollar client by walking into a room, but over time that relationship might develop.


A firm handshake and a fine beard is all you need…

Forms of Networking

Networking comes in various forms, such as events organised purely for that purpose, seminars and talks organised by specific interest groups which include networking, or events you organise yourself for networking.

By far the easiest and pain-free events are the latter – events you’ve organised yourself. You have people on your own terms and you’ll feel far more relaxed asking them how they are, whether they’re enjoying whatever it is you’ve organised for them, etc.

In contrast, the general networking events, rooms full of random collections of people can be a nightmare. You might walk into a room full of people you don’t know, often don’t want to know, but somewhere in there might be that ideal person. Let’s deal with these events:

A mate of mine once told me he’d played golf with someone who worked in the Automotive industry in the US. He didn’t particularly think it’d be helpful for business (were it me, it’d also have been a good walk ruined). However, it turned out that automotive man knew the head of one of the biggest property developers in Dubai. Next time my friend played golf, it was with someone he could never otherwise have made contact with and an invaluable asset to the business.

Networking events can be the same – I used to have colleagues who’d insist on only meeting the people they thought would give them work. However, opportunities often lie in the most obscure places, and the wide range of people at such events can be helpful.


The Terror…

Incidentally, psychologists have concluded the feeling of terror on walking into a room for networking is caused by a fear of rejection. Nobody wants to be told they’re not wanted. If like me, you’re a natural worrier, you’ll worry that people won’t think you know enough, that you’ll fail to impress, that you’ll not be as good at networking as the next person. Unless you’re supremely arrogant, all these fears will rise to the surface when you enter a room of strangers.

But how to approach the strangers, how to beat the terror? You can try arriving early – while it’s still quiet and so people will be looking for people to meet. Or you could end up the only person in the room with nobody to talk to for a long time. However, if you’re like me and it’s a breakfast event, you probably overslept and wandered in once everyone’s already chatting!

A tip I got from a female networking trainer was to talk to women. Women often seem to be far more comfortable talking to people at such events. Or take a friend. I’ve a great ally who comes with me to events in Sheffield. It makes a huge difference to know you’re headed out with a partner in crime. We usually split up as soon as we enter the room, but the fear is gone, as a comfort blanket is always available if needed. This technique has the added advantage that if you’re with someone who’s good, you can introduce each other to potentially useful contacts.

Then, just strike up a conversation. A firm handshake (there are some terrible handshakes out there) and then – hello, what do you / what does your firm do, etc. – the rest will usually follow without effort from there. Often there will be people like you, looking for someone to meet. Breaking into a group or conversation can be quite tricky, maybe something for discussion at a later stage.

The same friend who met the automotive man pointed out that obtaining a business card isn’t enough. Having their card doesn’t make someone your ally.

People (as we’ve established) like doing business with people they like. My mate would say to his colleagues who proudly brandished collected business cards, ‘so what do you know about them – how many kids have they got, what do they do for fun, how did they get to where they got to’? Just obtaining a card doesn’t answer the questions that build friendships.


Escape the shop…

If you can find a connection beyond the workplace, then so much the better. Talking to someone a few days ago, I discovered they’re renovating a horsebox to turn it into a mobile bar. I happen to know a beer wholesaler, so not only was this revelation fascinating, I was able to help make some suggestions and introductions aside from the construction law conversation we were having.

Leaving a conversation can be challenging – a colleague used to have the incredible ability to melt away. Nobody knew how he did it, or what happened to him, but at some point in the evening, people might notice he was no longer there. Unless you’re equipped with this skill then usually you’ll need an exit strategy. Honesty is usually the best policy – just a polite, ‘would you excuse me, I just want to have a quick word with xxx’ will go down far better than ‘oh, I just need the toilet’ before you head to speak to your best friend.

And of course, there’s the follow-up. We’ve concluded there’s no point in just collecting a business card. There’s also no point in chatting away at a networking event and not doing anything else after that. In these technological times, adding the contact on LinkedIn is a good starting point. But LinkedIn is just a start. I had a really interesting follow up from a recent networking event – the chap I’d met phoned me up and suggested we might catch up for coffee. I’d usually try and at least email to make the suggestion, and then you can add a link to your website or a corporate brochure (if they’re any good) to the email.


Keep it up…

Most importantly, keep the conversation going. Because usually, work comes from the last person we spoke to. If you were last through the door, last in the inbox, you’ll be first in the mind of the person who needs your skills.

There’s so much more to talk about – how to handle the in-house sessions, and how to deal with the embarrassment of what happens if you forget someone’s name, or indeed how to try and remember their name, etc. For now, here are details of some useful events I’ve come across in the past few years:

  • Society of Construction Law: both educational and essential for anyone working in the field of Construction and Engineering / Law. www.scl.org.uk
  • RICS: occasionally hold seminars and events which can be useful, focused very much on surveying. www.rics.org
  • Last Friday / Third Thursday / First Tuesday, etc: events throughout the UK, very general, but usually quite useful and full of fascinating people – the events are often organised through LinkedIn or other communities – a google search will usually bring them up.
  • Constructing Excellence: hold events in various places, including a series of breakfast meetings in London. www.constructingexcellence.org.uk
  • CIOB: still one of the broader churches in the industry, events and seminars range from law to social media, so there should be something out there for everyone. www.ciob.org.uk
  • CIArb: again, very much a legal body, but often with a good series of construction events. www.ciarb.org

There are many others, including some which seem to thrive on being kept a complete secret, so I’d better not reveal those!

Stuart Wilks is director of Limeslade Consulting – a marketing and business development focused consultancy for the built environment and legal sectors. This article was published in an abridged form in Construction Manager magazine – http://www.constructionmanagermagazine.com/management/networking-only-matter-good-practice/