Ultimate guide to business networking (to grow your sales pipeline)

by Ryan Robinson
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If you’re like most well-adjusted people, the term business networking probably conjures images of awkward conversations, uninvited solicitations, and way too many sweaty palms. But your career, and more importantly, your business, relies on your ability to nurture relationships.  

Remember that old cliche: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Well, like it or not it’s true.  

That still doesn’t change the fact that business networking can really suck. It’s broken. Rather than a group of smart people with shared values getting together to see how they can actually help each other, most business networking events are a cesspool of overeager, would-be entrepreneurs and pushy salespeople only looking out for themselves.

And while you can’t avoid running into these kinds of people, you can get real results from simply not being like them. 

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Done right, business networking can build your contact list, and more importantly, fill your sales pipeline. All without coming across as a sleazeball or feeling like you wasted your time.

First off, what do we mean by “business networking?”

There are lots of reasons why you want to take networking seriously, but when we talk about business networking, we’re talking specifically about the right ways to leverage networking as a tool to find prospects and connect with customers. 

Business networking is the process of meeting, connecting with, and establishing mutually beneficial relationships with other entrepreneurs, business leaders, and potential customers. It’s networking with a clear purpose: Explain what you do, show your value, ask genuine questions, and turn the right new connections (that stand to benefit from your product) into customers.

In the age of social media, it might seem like a waste of time to network in person, but the benefits of this kind of business networking are huge:

1. Fill your contacts list and meet referrals: Obviously you’re out here to make contacts, and proper business networking will not only help you meet potential customers and add to your list of prospects, but it will also help you identify opportunities for partnerships and collaborations.   

2. Raise your visibility and professional profile: The more people see you around and know that you’re an expert at what you do, the more they’ll want to work with you. And, the more they’ll tell people about you. Business networking gives you the profile and visibility you need to be known as the go-to person in your field—especially if you're seizing opportunities to speak to groups at the right business networking events in your area.

3. Stay current and connected to the market: Sales is an ever-changing field. To bring in clients, you need to know exactly what issues they’re facing and how you can solve them. Business networking helps you keep a pulse on the market, hear what customers are dealing with, and even find solutions to your own business problems.

4. Share your knowledge and experience: When you give your experience and knowledge freely, others will do the same. So, not only does business networking help you raise your profile and status, but it gives you the opportunity to learn from others who are masters in your industry. 

5. Build your confidence and company morale: Business networking surrounds you with like-minded people, letting you feed off their optimism and excitement. Especially if you’re just getting started or going through a difficult transition, meeting people who've been there and succeeded, is a great way to boost your morale.

3 Steps to using business networking to grow your sales pipeline (the right way)

Personal benefits aside, the goal of business networking is often growing your bottom line. But getting there is rarely a straight line.

Instead, you need to treat people with respect, prove yourself, establish your value, and only then, when the time is right, ask for the sale.

Now, let's talk about how to authentically use networking to grow your sales pipeline.

Step 1: Examine and understand your own motivations

If you want to build an effective network, you need to focus on what you can do for other people. Not just what they can offer you.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Everyone knows why you—the sales professional—are at this business networking event. You’re there to make sales. That’s a problem. Too many sleazy people have ruined these events by being so self-involved. You’re going to face an uphill battle to get people to trust and open up to you. 

It all starts by understanding your own motivations and being honest, open, and genuine with the people you meet.  

As Mike Steib, CEO and author of The Career Manifesto, writes: “Too many people visualize their ‘network’ as just a list of names they can utilize to achieve an end goal.”

Before you even step foot inside a business networking event, ask yourself: How am I going to provide value to the people here? (Aside from simply making a sale to them).

This could be translated into anything from sharing your deep industry experience, to providing them with genuine advice and a solution to a particular problem they’re having. 

According to Chris Fralic, a partner at First Round Capital and one of the main people who helped launch the famed TED Talks: “The best way to be highly influential is to be human to everyone you meet.”

Sounds pretty simple right?

To get the most from your business networking activities, you have to change your thinking from being focused on you and start really thinking about the people you’re meeting.

Making this mindset shift (first), above all else, is most important.

Step 2: Set and track clearly defined networking goals

Now, this isn’t to say that you should just show up at events and chat aimlessly for hours. You’re still here to build relationships that could potentially lead to a sale. However, you’re going to customize your sale pitch to the people you’re meeting and the goals you want to achieve.

First, let’s talk about the people you’re going to meet. Each of us have four different types of networks:

  1. Meaningful: Your personal connections and deepest friendships
  2. Intimate: People you know quite well
  3. Familiar: People you’ve met before but don’t really know
  4. Unfamiliar: People you’re meeting for the first time

One of the main goals of business networking is to move people up in your networking funnel. You build trust and show your value until they’re an intimate or meaningful connection. Then, you ask for the sale.

Keep in mind, however, that's it's not realistic to expect that you'll be able to meet anybody and build a meaningful relationship with them—while some have the natural ability to forge instant friendships, the point here is to go for depth (not just breadth) with your relationships.

So, for example, let’s say you’re going to a small business networking event with quite a few intimate and familiar connections. You could set a goal of “Giving meaningful advice and tangible help to 2 people.” This means moving connections from your familiar group to your intimate group, and in the process getting them one step closer to becoming a potential sale.

Another goal could be to simply fill your familiar network. So, let’s say you’re going to a large event where you only know a few people. You could set a goal to “Meet and have meaningful conversations with 10 people and get their contact info.”

Whatever you choose, set a clear goal for yourself. And one that isn’t just focused on the sale. As Chris Fralic says: “If you find yourself keeping score in your professional relationships, you’re on the wrong track.”

Step 3: Finding the right events, conferences and meetups

The last piece of the puzzle is understanding where to find the right business networking events that'll have the people you want to network with. In most major cities you could potentially attend 8–10 decent business networking events on any given day.

But rather than waste your time running from one to the next, you need to ask yourself a few questions to find the one that’s best for your goals:

Begin with that first question again: How am I going to provide value to the people there? 

The best business networking events are ones where you know you’ll be able to give something to every person you speak with. If you’re simply going out there to gladhand and throw out business cards, that’s not smart networking. Instead, look for events in your niche market or a complementary one. This is where it pays to deeply understand your target market and ideal customer. If you don’t know who they are, or think you’re selling to “everyone,” you’re not going to have much success networking.

Next, ask yourself: Whom, exactly do I want to meet?

You might not know the names of the people you want to meet, but you need to know the type of person they are. Is it a CEO or director you’re after? Are you looking to connect with small business owners? Or, are you looking for reps from larger companies? Each type of person will most likely be at a different event, and you’ll need to know who you’re after to put yourself in the right room.

Dr. Ivan Misner and Brian Hilliard—founders of Business Network International (BNI), and authors of Networking like a Pro—give this breakdown of where to meet the right prospects:

  • Small business owners: Spend time at the chamber of commerce, your local business association or a referral group  
  • Reps for larger firms in your area: Attend service clubs, nonprofit groups and volunteer work. You can also contact them through homeowners' associations or local events.  
  • CEOs and Directors: You’ll have a better chance networking at service clubs or nonprofit groups like Habitat for Humanity, Kiwanis International or Rotary International. You should also try to get on your service club's board or leadership team for extra contact. The last good opportunity for networking with CEOs and directors is to land a spot on the speaker lineup (alongside these people) for a major conference in your industry.

Outside of these local events and groups, you should also regularly check for relevant events on Meetup or sign-up for the curated list of entrepreneur and founder-related events on places like The Fetch or Startup Grind. And of course, don’t forget to look for relevant conferences and trade shows.  

Everything you need to be successful at a business networking event

Now that you know how to find the best people to network with, how do you ensure you’re successful? Business networking comes down to creating real relationships, which takes time. You can’t force them.

However, there are ways to make sure you’re prepared so that when you do end up talking to the right person, you have the best chance of building an honest and genuine connection.

Tips for starting conversations at business networking events

It can feel awkward and phony to start conversations at a business networking event. Even though everyone knows they’re there to network (that is the point, right?) if you don’t have an in or someone to intro you, people are naturally on the defensive. 

So, instead of starting with the expected “So, what do you do?” here are a few ways to start a more genuine and interesting conversations:

  1. Look approachable: Human communication is 55% visual. So, hiding out in the corner sipping on a drink isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, show you’re open to new conversations. Stand where people can see you and smile. Use your body language to make people feel relaxed. Unfold your arms, stand tall, and lift your chin. When you meet someone for the first time, make eye contact and offer a confident handshake to put them at ease.
  2. Begin with a question tailored to the event: People love to talk about themselves, so after a general introduction, ask a question that is relevant to the situation you’re in. So, for example, if you’re at a conference or meetup, this could mean something like:
    • "What do you think of the conference so far? ... Have the sessions been helpful?"
    • "How long have you been a member of XYZ organization?"
    • "Have you always been in X industry, or have you worked in other industries?"
  3. Show genuine interest and give compliments (if it makes sense to): One of the biggest mistakes you can make when starting a conversation is to try to think of something interesting, clever, or even impressive to say about yourself. Instead, practice active listening, which means making eye contact, reacting to what they’re saying and asking follow-up questions, and nodding along. If they mention a milestone or recent success, be sure to congratulate them. The key here is to create a genuine connection before moving on. As Mike Steib explains, your success at building a network is founded on one very important mindset: that you’re doing it based on your desire to know, appreciate, and help other people.

Positioning yourself as an expert by adding value

Throughout your conversations with prospects at these business networking events, you want to use every opportunity you have to position yourself as an expert. Building that level of trust and authority makes people much more receptive and will help when you transition into the sale or pitch.

This all starts with providing value.

There’s a reason top CEOs share their experience and knowledge for free through blog posts, eBooks, and courses. Or why companies give away tools and resources they could potentially sell for millions. They understand that, to build lifelong connections, you need to constantly be providing value.  

Social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk calls this jab, jab, jab, right hook.

“Jabs are the value you provide your customers with: the content you put out, the good things you do to convey your appreciation. And the right hook is the ask.”

Your job at these business networking events is to provide value in every way you can so that you earn the audacity to ask for the sale or follow-up meeting. How do you do this? There’s a number of ways:

  • Answer questions or help people solve problems, even if it doesn’t lead to a sale
  • Offer connections or introductions to people you know
  • Give talks or run workshops on topics that you’re an expert in
  • Give away resources you have, like books or free trials/upgrades of your software 

With every piece of value you give out, you position yourself as an expert and as a trusted resource. Enough of those, and you quickly move people from your “familiar” group to your “intimate” or even “meaningful” ones.

Turning conversations into prospects or referrals

If you feel like it’s the right time to pitch your services or products to the person you’re talking to, you want to be able to do so in a clear, succinct way. This is your elevator pitch—a 30-second description of yourself, your mission, and your business.

Just like how you’ll start a conversation and ask questions based on the situation you’re in, the best elevator pitches are contextual. Diving right into your features or benefits (or, God forbid, pricing) at this point isn’t going to get you anything but an annoyed expression from the person you’re talking to. 

Instead, use your conversation to qualify the person you’re talking to and understand their exact needs. Find out what their biggest issues are that they’re facing. Then, go deeper. What are they doing right now to address those issues? What sort of solutions are they looking for?

If you or your product or service matches that description, then it’s time to jump into your elevator pitch. Explain what you make or do, how it relates to their specific problem, and why it’s better than what they’re using right now. 

While you can find all sorts of elevator pitch templates and things online, there’s nothing more powerful than using a prospect’s own answers to build your pitch.    

And remember, make it compelling and exciting without going overboard. Genuine enthusiasm is a great way to build a connection, but people can smell fakeness a mile away.

Following up after the event

In most cases, you won’t be making the sale at a business networking event. But you will be earning a follow-up, demo, or phone call.

These are huge opportunities that you don’t want to forget about or let slip. It’s easy for a business card to go missing or to forget about a great conversation you had (especially when the night gets later and the drinks keep flowing). Instead, you need a clear system for how you’re going to remember and follow up with leads.

Here’s where your CRM saves your ass. Using a CRM (like Close.io), lets you keep track of your leads and prospects, monitor every touchpoint, from email to phone calls, and set reminders to follow up when you promised you would.

If you’re using business networking to fill your sales pipeline, this is where you transfer all the hard work you’ve been doing from the world of networking into the world of sales.

For example, you can add your new prospects you met at that networking event to Close.io and set up a task with a due date for each (like, follow up after 2 days with a “thank you” and offer to call). Then, you can create a targeted list of those people using smart views to see only the people you’ve re-engaged with, or people you’ve had a phone conversation with in the past week. Anything you want.

When it comes to the art of following up (and it is an art form), Close.io CEO Steti Efti offers these Do’s and Don’ts: 

  • Stay persistently friendly and nice: Have an attitude of indifference if they don’t respond. Impress them by staying on top of your game.
  • Keep it short: Avoid long-winded formalities. People are busy and it’s annoying to read through three paragraphs of meaningless pleasantries. Be nice, but get to the point.
  • Provide value: Know and understand their wants and needs well enough to be able to offer them something relevant. It can be an article or something else that they’ll appreciate getting. (In general, clear, simple and concise works best).
  • Never ever make them feel or do anything guilt-inducing: Avoid saying things like “Why haven’t you responded to me so far? I've sent you 10 emails already!!!”

Final thoughts: How to amplify the results of your business networking  

At this point, you’ve got a blueprint for how to do effective business networking without coming across like a sleazeball.But if you really want to boost your ability to fill your sales pipeline through networking, here are a few extra opportunities you can go after.

Seek out speaking opportunities

We mentioned this briefly earlier, but there’s really no better way to provide value and prove your expertise than speaking at business networking events. Not only this, but it also gives you the chance to position yourself as a unique problem-solver, meaning you won’t have to work so hard to build that initial trust with new prospects. 

Look for meetups or conferences looking for speakers, or put together a few ideas and reach out to the organizers of meetups that you’re familiar with.

Take on volunteer leadership positions

If your goal is to interact with the true influencers in your industry, then joining a service club's board or leadership team or volunteering for other leadership and organizing positions at meetups and events is a great option. By putting your money where your mouth is and proving your commitment to the industry, you’ll be in a better position to make more connections with the right people.  

Become a mentor to others in your industry

Not only will you build a meaningful connection with others getting started in your industry, but as a mentor, you’re also showing the leaders of that community that you’re valuable. This isn’t to say you should use mentorship opportunities solely to get sales and prospects. But rather that it’s a nice side effect.

Offer your time and expertise to people you meet at business networking events or ask around your industry to see if there’s a rising star looking for help.   

There’s more to business networking than just getting the sale.

Getting out from behind the desk and talking to real people—real potential customers—is one of the greatest sources of knowledge and insight you can tap into. 

So why waste that opportunity? When you use business networking to provide value and make genuine connections, you’re giving your sales process a head start.

Want to take your sales game to a new level? Get free access to our ultimate sales resource library today.