This article tackles how you can take pressure and awkwardness out of business networking while building goodwill for mutually beneficial opportunities.
- Get comfortable getting favors from people you already know before you network with those you do not.
- Understand your networking target and frequent places/events where they most likely are.
- Upon first meeting the target, the relationship (and not what you need from the target) is the goal.
- Balance courting and pitching according to how many pitches the target receives.
- Collaborate for mutual value, and always lead with their benefit.
“What if I could give you the genie’s lamp?” my uncle asked after watching Aladdin at the family movie night.
“It’s all made up. The lamp doesn’t exist!” my cousin remarked. He had the cynicism of adulthood seeping into his teenage years.
“There are actual genies that walk among us,” my uncle kept a straight face. I did not know if he was being serious or not, but I was open to seeing where this was going.
“Okay, tell us about it,” I demanded.
“First, Ibrahim, you tell me what are the two reasons Genie could grant Aladdin’s wish?” everyone was looking at me.
“Because he had magic, and Aladdin had the lamp,” I replied confidently.
“Yes, but look at it this way,” he continued, “magic is ability, and the lamp made him willing to help Aladdin.” He examined the expression on our faces. We didn’t follow the point. “Kids, in other words, the two reasons he granted the wishes was because the genie had, one, the ability to grant wishes and, two, the willingness to grant them.”
“Okay, and?” my elder cousin was drawn in. “You see, you don’t need genies because there are people here who have the willingness to help you and the ability to help you. You find these people, and your wishes are granted.”
“How do we find them?” I asked. “You simply ask.”
“Wait! I am not asking around, what if they say no?!” my cousin protested.
“Well, if I gave you three lamps and said one of them is the magic lamp, would you not rub them till you found the magic lamp?” my uncle could see he had driven the point home. He continued, “Anyway, my point is that you gotta ask till you find the magic lamp, and what’s the worst people will do? Refuse to help?”
The allegory of the magic lamp and business networking
The allegory of the magic lamp has remained with me ever since. I have never hesitated to ask for help where needed. How often people are willing to help is astonishing. But this cannot apply to business, can it? What if I told you that a multi-billion dollar business attributes over 30% of its annual revenue to this principle? When you go to McDonald’s and order a big mac, what does the cashier ask? “Would you like fries with that?”
They want you to spend more, so what do they do? They ask you to spend more. This technique is called an upsell. Upselling is simply the act of asking your customers to buy more. It is up to them if they do. But the number of times they are willing creates a significant revenue bump. We also apply this principle with suppliers. Ask your suppliers if they are willing to give free samples or any other value adds. You could also ask for a reduction in prices. It is surprising how many suppliers are prepared and willing to go forward with it.
I must add, though, that the principle works on reciprocity, and you have to be willing to help where you have the ability when you’re asked. Otherwise, your approach towards seeking help will seem too selfish and will repel people. Once equipped with a reciprocal (but not transactional) mindset, you are ready to network. Only after being able to ask comfortably for favors from people you already know will you be able to make use of any networking.
Increasing positive networking outcomes
Once you are comfortable asking for and providing help, you must come across people with whom mutually beneficial ventures can be explored. Just like you must keep the ideal customer in mind, you must start networking with the perfect person in mind. Is it an artist, designer or engineer you want to come across? Maybe it is another business owner who is in a specific sector?
The next step is to list down possible places and events you are likely to run into people that match this description. Many business owners get this far. Where they fall short is that they dive into networking with a business-first mentality and take the seductive subtlety out of it, which is the sign of an amateur and is met with rightful rebuke.
The master networker increases the likelihood of running into the right people. But upon meeting these people, he makes no mention of what he wants. The relationship is senior to his needs. He only focuses on building a relationship. And since his goal is a relationship, he makes no mention of ulterior motives. At least upon first meeting, the only thing he wants in his prospect’s head is, “I would like to know this guy for a while.” If the networker has achieved this, he has won even without any apparent exchange of value.
Once connected, lead any conversation about your interests with their interests. For instance, if you are looking to use an artist’s design for a product you are about to launch, asking them if they would like their art across multiple billboards would rather than starting with your product idea.
Leading with their benefit is so powerful that it works even in the absence of a relationship. Messaging a journalist “I have a newsworthy exclusive for you” is going to get a response quicker than “my business is doing this, that and the other.”
Balance relationship-building with value seeking
I would recommend you strike a balance between courting and propositioning, directly from an assessment of your prospect’s time. If you want to work with an influencer who gets a few thousand requests every month and works on a few hundred collaborations, it is quite evident that he or she is not looking to be courted the same way as an artist who has yet to be approached by more than ten people. Ultimately, you look at the number of collaborations they do to understand the required level of relationship needed before proceeding with a project.
Start with one collaboration per month as the standard for one real-life friend’s level of affinity. If someone does one collaboration a month, or less, you must be a friend before they collaborate comfortably. If an individual collaborates twice a month, on average, you can be equivalent to a friend of a friend or half as close as a real-life friend before approaching them for a collaboration. This equation is carried forward to its logical conclusion, where someone who collaborates once a day or more, requires you to only lead with their benefit and make a proposal in the absence of any previous relationship.
Establish joint ventures through networking
Understanding how to get people to agree to collaborate is, of course, not all it takes. You may already have a network butt have not yet collaborated with anyone. What is missing is the collaboration idea. So we need to explore that.
First, you must not collaborate for the sake of collaboration. You have to be serious about collaborations benefits to you, and only then can you be serious about the benefits to your partners. I have spent days tailoring partnerships with my clients, and each business is in a unique position to leverage the owner’s network and other factors that vary. There are, however, universals, which are an excellent place to start.
Fuzail and Hasham, names changed, were my neighbors when I stayed in Jumeirah Beach Residence. At one party, we discussed how we all found our partners. It turns out Fuzial’s wife was Hasham’s childhood friend. Hasham’s fiance was Fuzail’s best friend. Hasham set up a blind date between his friend and Fuzail. They hit it off and the rest is history. About a year after that, Fuzail’s best friend saw Hasham in group photos and found him cute. When she asked Fuzail, the guy vouched for Hasham. His friend met Hasham, and they started dating.
While everyone at the party swooned over this, I could not help but deconstruct it. What had happened, unintentionally, was that reach and credibility were exchanged. The blind date was Hasham lending his reach and access, while vouching to give Fuzail credibility. This phenomenon occurs every day in business.
Most businesses have regular customers whom they reach and are credible in their eyes. Two businesses with similar, non-competing products, can collaborate. For instance, if yours is a fashion store and you have a jewelry business owner as a friend, you can arrange a collaboration where you place their jewelry in your store and take a percentage of the profit on the sale. This arrangement is called a consignment. The jewelry brand could give away vouchers to your store and, upon redemption, make a percentage of the sale.
Generally, all collaborations leverage existing trust, credibility and reach. A business's reach is not just related to customer data; it includes the means to communicate with them. Today, that occurs via email and phone; tomorrow that might change, but what will remain constant is that businesses must have the means to reach their regular customers. By deciding a complementary scheme, companies with audiences of similar interests and size can drive up business.
Two businesses don’t need to have similar products for this arrangement. I had a furniture store client collaborate with a real estate business. It is a fact that real estate customers are interested in furniture and people who buy furniture have homes.That is what made the collaboration possible.
For products and services with a small sales cycle, timed promotion works wonders. One of the grocery store chains I worked with collaborated with neighboring restaurants. Each branch partnered with a separate restaurant. The grocery would give a 25% off voucher to the restaurant if they got the customer’s number and name. The restaurant would offer 25% off to the grocery for the same information. This is how we increased sales for the month by 80% for the restaurants and 120% for the grocery stores.
This is not to mention the fact that all businesses involved now had a database that they previously did not. For the first time, these businesses had a relationship with their customers. What I got out of setting up these collaborations was access to restaurant owners, and two became clients. This arrangement, quite literally, was a win-win all around for everyone, including customers. And to make it happen, I followed all the actionable steps mentioned in this article. I hope the advice is as fruitful to you, as it was to me.