Get Networking Working – The benefits to a disabled entrepreneur

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When I set up my first business I knew the importance of networking but knew very little else! My inexperience and lack of knowledge, coupled with my disability made my attempts hit and miss, heavy on the miss!

I found networking events really difficult initially and my sight loss did not help. I would now go as far as to say that I am better at it than many of my sighted counterparts these days. I have learned ways to make it work for me and I would like to share them.

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers and different disabilities pose different challenges but a disability need not always be a barrier and can sometimes be turned into an advantage.

Firstly, if you don’t like networking you are probably in good company. It is worth remembering that few people are natural networkers, like anything it requires some preparation and experience .

Before you begin any kind of networking it is important to understand that networking is more about giving than receiving and it is all about building relationships. Once you realise that networking is not all about direct selling it seems instantly a lot less painful.

I used to think that if I didn’t leave a networking event with someone prepared to book my services then my time had been wasted and I had failed. Once I understood the principle of using networking events, and generally meeting people, as an opportunity to begin to build a relationship with a potential client then the pressure immediately disappeared and I began to create real opportunities for my business.

Here are my top ten tips on getting networking working:

1. You Are Your Business

Remember, people do business with people they know, like and trust. Because networking is all about building relationships, people are often buying into you rather than into your business. You are likely to be the person they deal with so you need to think carefully how you present yourself and you should consider what potential clients expectations are.

2. Six Degrees of Separation

‘ 6 Degrees Of Separation’ is the notion that we are all just 6 steps away from anyone else in the world. It’s been estimated we all know about 250 other people. That sounds a lot, but if you sat and wrote down everyone you know – friends, family, work colleagues, your Bank manager, hairdresser, window cleaner etc the list would soon add up.

Folloing this notion, everyone you meet knows other people and through getting to know them you are opening up the opportunity to meet the people they know.

I started my disability business without a single contact in the field of disability. When I thought about it I decided I must surely know at least one person. I gave it some further thought and I did know someone…..I knew my cconsultant who diagnosed me with sight loss and so I contacted him and he became my first client!

My most extreme example of extra curricular networking was at an Anne Summer’s party! A friend had told me of one of her friends who she thought may be a useful contact and she was attending her party. Networking over obscure, vibrating objects was not exactly conventional but it was the introduction I had been seeking.

3. Attending Networking Events

Attending with a friend or a support worker may help the nerves but avoid the temptation to just chat with them, you can do this anytime. Discuss with a support worker before attending how you would like their support and consider how you will introduce them.

Keep your business cards to hand and in a professional wallet but don’t circulate the room handing them out to everyone. The only thing you will be known for is being the person to avoid.

If you meet someone you would like to keep in touch with, always get their contact details even if they haven’t got a business card. Don’t assume they will call you, even if they say they will, you need to be able to instigate further contact.

Ideally you will go home with a number of business cards. It is a good idea to jot on the back of the cards where and when you met the person and a couple of key words about them or their service. Believe me, you will be glad of this after some time has passed and your memory has faded. It also makes getting back in touch with someone easier if you can relate to a previous conversation or common interest.

As I am unable to see the cards I receive I fold the corner of business cards from people I want to prioritise contacting, as it helps me to identify them later.

‘Working a room’ is few people’s idea of a good time and it is not my idea of a good time either! I found speaking at networking events is a great way of making sure everyone in the room leaves knowing about me and my business. I have a captive audience and the best bit is that everyone comes to you.

If you are prepared to speak at an event it is often possible for information about you and your business to be included in the marketing of the event and available at the event. This in itself is great free marketing that someone else will even do for you!

There are all sorts of events so do your research. Know what it is you want to achieve, the sort of people you want to work with and where they network.

Consider also what suits you. Family commitments or your disability may make certain times of day preferable. I stopped attending breakfast events as I do not function well at 7am and the lack of public transport was a problem.

One of the difficulties I have is knowing who is in the room as I can’t se the delegate list or name badges. One way I have turned this to my advantage is to ask the organiser for the delegate list in advance. I can then identify a couple of people I really want to meet and I ask the organiser to introduce me.

4. What Can You Do For The People You Meet

You should be thinking as much about what you can offer other people, as what you can get from them. If you seem to be in it just
for what you can get, people will see this very quickly and you will not endear yourself to them.

5. Breaking the Ice

It can be hard to instigate conversations but that is what you are there to do. Walk over to someone standing by themselves, smile and extend your hand and introduce yourself. They will be grateful and you will look confident.

Consider asking a general question at first such as, ‘have you been to this event before?’ You may wish to avoid asking what they do as a first question as it may look like you are networking a bit too hard.

Make sure you ask open questions to generate a conversation. Try and find some mutual interests.

People also like to talk about themselves and they tend to like people who allow them to do this. The benefits are two-fold; you are showing an interest which is a great way to build a relationship and you are also gaining a good picture of what they do and what you may be able to do for them.

When approaching a group you may need to be bold and at a pause in the conversation say, ‘may I join you?’ Everyone is there to meet other people and most people are there alone so no one is going to say ‘no’.

6. “So what do you do?”

You know you will be asked this question so it is not good enough not to have thought about how you will answer it.

Prepare by writing down all the problems you help people with and the benefits you provide. This may be; saving them money, increasing their client base, providing peace of mind or saving them time. Whatever it may be it should be something that sets you apart from every other person in your profession that they’ve met before.

The approach that many people take is to simply say their job title such as, ‘ I’m an accountant’. This approach is largely ineffective because most people will think they know what you do. Unless they coincidently require an accountant they won’t see the need to ask you any further questions.

Also you are not presenting yourself as an individual or selling the benefits of what you do. an accountant may give the following response, knowing the event is attended by small business owners, ‘I help busy business owners keep on top of their bookkeeping so they can spend more time running their businesses’.

7. Moving On

It can be difficult when you want to move on from talking to one person to talk to someone else. Even if you are talking to someone really interesting you should move on to talk to others.

I find saying something like, ‘ Nice to talk to you. There are one or two other people I need to try to speak to so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just see if I can find them’ seems to work in this situation.

Alternatively, you can say, ‘Shall we see who else is here’, and take that person with you to join another group.

8. Following Up

An important part of networking is the follow-up. There is no point in networking with people if you are not going to keep in touch with them.

Have I mentioned already that it is about building relationships! Rather than just giving someone you meet your card and hoping they will ring you, or even trying to arrange to ring them, consider offering to send them something of interest to them. Having established what the other person’s interests are you may like to offer to send an article on a holiday destination you had talked about or a link to a work-related website.

Usually people will be quite happy to receive something like that because it’s of use to them and not just your marketing material, although in a way that’s exactly what it is. You are offering them something of value and it gives you a reason to contact them again to follow-up.

If you want to follow-up with someone you talked to, it’s often best just to send a note saying, ‘ good to meet you yesterday. I enjoyed our chat and I hope to see you again at the next meeting’. This in itself will help to move the relationship forward, It shows you remembered them and have made an effort. Ideally refer back to something you talked about. People will be really impressed that you took the trouble to send something of interest to them.

You need to try and distinguish yourself from everyone else. A solicitor I know, is aware she is often not the only solicitor at events. She is pretty sure however that she is the only one with a guide dog. She is very careful not to play to her disability but when she follows up the next day on the phone she will sometimes say, it’s Sarah,the one with the Labrador in tow, nice to meet you yesterday!’. She finds this breaks the ice and reminds the person who she is.

9. Referrals

remember the six degrees of separation theory….everyone you meet knows many other people who may be interested in your services. Consider asking people you meet, ‘the sort of people I generally work with, who get most benefit from my services are ( add ideal client) with ( add kind of problem ). Do you come across many of those people in your own work?’ You need to give them enough information so that, if they come across someone that you could work with, they will recognise that they can connect you. Offer this in return as it shows you are prepared to give as well as take.

Consider sending a thank you card if you receive a contract off the back of a referral.

10. Review Your Progress

Look back at what seemed to go well and what didn’t. Review what events gave you the best return, remember that this may take time.

Try different approaches and see what works for you. If you are prepared to put the work in and be patient your business will reap the benefits.

Do you know any hint and tips? Please let us know below

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