In a New York Times survey of peoples’ greatest fears, death came in third, following walking into a room full of strangers and speaking in public – a fact that makes Andy Lopata's job a bit more difficult.
Once dubbed Mr. Network by The Sun, Lopata's business is helping accountants, as well as other professionals, overcome these social fears and grow their businesses through networking. Lopata is a business networking strategist and author of And Death Came Third: The Definitive Guide to Networking and Speaking in Public.
The most common misconception about networking, explained Lopata, is that it’s just another word for sales.
"Networking isn't selling; there's a strong perception that you go to networking events to sell as hard as you can and find clients. That's not how it works. Occasionally you might meet someone who later becomes a customer, but the majority are there to sell themselves – so I can't think of a worse place to try and sell because no one's there to buy."
Networking is about creating a group of like-minded professionals. "It’s about building relationships – finding people with whom you have a rapport and adding them to your network. It's your network that provides you with business in the long term", Lopata said.
"Think about it this way: Would you rather meet someone at a networking event and sell to them once, or meet them and never sell to them, but be referred by them five or 10 times?" he said.
What many accountants find difficult about networking is being unable to measure whether they are getting a good return on investment for their networking time. Unlike other business activities, the key performance indicators, or KPIs, of networking are not always clear.
"Many people attend networking events simply because they're invited, but don't think strategically about what they actually want to get out of it. This often leads to them walking away complaining it's been a waste of time, without them ever really knowing what they were there for in the first place", Lopata said.
"There are three main reasons businesses network", he said. "It pays to focus on the combination most suitable for you and which networking events will drive that particular return, which will in turn guide you on what to measure."
The three reasons are:
- To raise your businesses’ profile
- To become better equipped – either as an individual in terms of improving skills and learning from people who already have been through the journey you're on, or as a business you might use it for market research and look for ideas and feedback
- To become better connected and generate referrals
Networking faux pas
One question you should avoid when networking is the most obvious",What do you do?" said Lopata. "This is the networking equivalent of, 'Do you come here often?' People only ask it as an ice breaker and don't care about the answer. It's a common dance that people get involved in and basically involves each party presenting an elevator pitch (i.e. a 30-second presentation on their business), shaking hands, exchanging cards, and then walking away, possibly never to speak again.
"Instead of doing this, it's much better to try and engage them in a genuine conversation and find some common ground. One good way of doing this is finding out what brought them to the event and whether they know anyone else in the room", he said.
One of the other reasons people say they hate networking is the perception that it's somehow manipulative.
"The way to get around this idea is to look to help others before helping yourself", Lopata said. "Think about the people you're closest to in your network. If those people needed your help, would you be willing to give it? Try to build relationships so they feel that way about you. It's a two-way process."
The reluctant referral
Many accountants aren't comfortable asking clients or others in their network for referrals, but unless you ask, you're unlikely to get them, said Lopata.
"My advice for overcoming this is to try and take the conversation away from the professional relationship. Most accountants only see their clients twice a year to do their books and go through their accounts, and many tack on a request for a referral at the end of this. This isn't the right time because this is when you should be focused on them and their issues, not on you", he said.
"It would be far better to say to a client 'I only see you twice a year and I'd like to get to know you and your business better. Can I take you for a coffee?' If you can create a meeting outside of the norm like this – and it's actually good customer service to do this anyway – it creates a good impression and is a good retention tool", Lopata said. "It also creates an opportunity to ask them for a referral."
In the current economic climate, many clients are worrying about whether they can grow their businesses and, indeed, whether their business will survive. Those who do survive will be those who reach out and turn to others for help, whether that's with building their profile, getting support for their ideas and feedback, or getting referrals.
"Whatever your aims, you're not going to do it alone", Lopata said. "That's an important thing for accountants to remember both for their clients and for themselves."
Businesses that are looking to reach out should ensure they have a strategy in place to make the most of their efforts.
"Think about what you want to achieve, what you're investing into it, and what a successful return looks like, and make it a serious part of the business approach. Don't just think about it as drinks after work", he said.
"For accountants, particularly senior associates and junior partners who are close to becoming a partner but haven't previously had lead generation responsibility, it's important to understand the role networking can play and how to use their time effectively. Non-billable hours are limited, so they should be looking at how they can be as effective as possible given those considerations."