Our comprehensive guide to networking, from crafting your elevator pitch to how franchises can build you into a socialising sensation
Networking can be a great way to grow any business and many franchises expect their franchisees to do it. Some people take to it immediately - but many are daunted by the prospect.
That doesn’t mean you need to avoid these franchises. Most franchises that use networking provide training to make you feel confident about it - and even if you feel awkward at first, it gets easier with experience.
Why use networking?
Alex Brook, franchise development manager at It’seeze Web Design, whose franchisees provide web design, maintenance and development services to SMEs, says: “Business to business networking is an essential activity for our franchisees. It’s an easy way to meet other local businesses to build relationships and introduce their services.”
He explains: “Networking is all about generating recommendations from the people in the room. Recommendations give credibility to your business and show you are trusted. It’s much stronger than any other factor in developing your business - more so than the price of your service or its perceived benefits. Someone recommending you as the ‘go to’ person for your particular service is the best form of advertising.“Daniel Wade, new practice development manager at The WPA Healthcare Practice, whose franchisee partners provide WPA Health Insurance mainly to SMEs, says: “Networking is one of the priorities for our new franchisees so we bring in independent networking experts who spend hours training them in online and face-to-face networking techniques. Networking develops your business and yourself. You find out about how other businesses work, get your name known in your area and develop your own self-confidence and presentation skills.”
Broadening your reach
Networking connects you to the people in the - virtual or actual - room, but also to the people they know outside the room.
Alex says: “Everyone you meet in business has many contacts: clients, suppliers, colleagues, ex-colleagues, hobbies, interest groups, family, and friends. Potentially, a networking group of 20 attendees could connect you to thousands of people.”
Nervous about networking?
“Networking frightens lots of people because they associate it with smart suits, elevator pitches and captains of industry - but really it’s just talking to people,” says Corinne Mills, career coach and joint managing director of Personal Career Management, who offers advice at franchise shows to prospective franchisees.
Remember, you are not there to sell. “It’s about relationship building,” she says.
Many franchisees are expected to join formal networking groups such as BNI, where all participants start by making a short presentation about their business to the whole group. Given the tight time limit (maybe as little as 20 seconds) and the general fear of public speaking, this can be hair-raising.
This is where you need an elevator pitch.
“All our trainee franchisees are apprehensive about networking if they are not from a sales background,” says Dan Wade. “That’s why our training includes presentation skills, the creation of elevator pitches, and practice role-play for face-to-face and online networking.”
Choose your networks
Networking meetings range from the very formal, scheduled type to the more informal. Not all will suit you. Research what is available in your area, and the costs. Try several at first, then review the effectiveness of each one after a few months, not forgetting that it takes several meetings for people to get to know and trust you. If there are any that don’t work for you, you can drop them.
What do I say?
Networking is not just glad-handing, smiling and handing round your card. It’s about conversation. Alex Brook says: “We advise our franchisees to start with a general conversation, and a business discussion will naturally follow.”
James Vincent, the performance director at ActionCOACH UK, says: “Ask open-ended questions which invite others to open up, rather than closed questions which can be answered with just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. ‘How is the pandemic treating you and your business?’ is a great question to ask once rapport is established.”
Give the other person time to talk. “People who feel listened to are more likely to open up,” says Corinne.
Once you hear a bit about their business, listen for issues you may be able to help with. Have a few up-to-date anecdotes on hand about how your business helped solve similar problems.
James suggests that you might say: “I hear what you are saying about this issue. A client of mine faced the same thing - but we were able to turn that around. Now he’s doing really well. I might be able to help you too. I wouldn’t mind popping in and checking out your business. Can I have your business card?”
He points out: “Notice the language is conversational and non-threatening. I have been to too many networking groups where people are very stiff and intense. Don’t be so serious. If you can get a complete stranger to laugh at a stiff business networking event, you’ll get the card, no worries.”
Help! I’m trapped!
It’s easy to end up talking to one person or group, neglecting all the others in the room - which means lost opportunities. But how do you get away?
Don’t feel you have to close a deal then and there. If you identify an opportunity, suggest an appointment for a one-to-one meeting at another time to discuss the issue, swap business cards, then move on.
Otherwise, you can suggest that as you are both there to meet several people, it might be good for both of you to circulate a bit - or simply say you are off for another coffee!
This is essential. If you have identified any potential synergies, James says: “Shoot the person an email. Look for them on Facebook and LinkedIn - but don’t just call them and ask, ‘So, are you ready to do some business together?’ Building trust and credibility take time.”
Networking no nos
“Poor networking can damage your business reputation,” says Dan Wade.
“If you are too salesy and pushy, don’t give other people enough time to speak, and fail to show genuine interest in their business, they will disengage. Why should they be interested in you if you are not interested in them?”
Networking is a two-way process so only attend networking events if you genuinely wish to help others, says James Vincent. “Attending only with the intention to sell means you will appear self-serving and fail to connect with other attendees, wasting your time and theirs.”
How to craft your elevator pitch
Going up in a lift at a business conference, someone asks: “What does your business do?”
What you need is an elevator pitch – a persuasive 30-second speech that presents your business in a way that prompts the question: “Tell me more”.
An elevator pitch makes networking easier. “It should be positive,” says Corinne Mills. “That can be hard because it’s often seen as boasting, but it’s not.”
Sound enthusiastic. If you are not enthusiastic about your business, why should anyone else be?
Be specific. Highlight what your business does and how it will benefit the person you are addressing.
James Vincent says: “Understand what makes your business unique. In the case of ActionCOACH, “I help business owners make more profit when they are out of the business, than in it…” is a great introduction. Most business owners will say, “How do you do that?”
Once you have devised your pitch, practice delivering it until it comes naturally.
Avoid inauthenticity: People can detect fake enthusiasm and it decreases your credibility. “Find something positive and energising about your business that you can authentically highlight to others,” says Corinne.
“The right message multiplies my leads”
Richard Hubble had no experience of business networking before he became a franchisee with It’seeze Web Design.
Now he says: “Over 60 per cent of my new clients come from networking. When I started the business five years ago, I tried various methods of securing clients including paid leads and advertisements but networking was the best source by a million miles.”
He belongs to four different networking groups and networking takes up around 30 per cent of his week.
“To make the most of it, let other participants know exactly what questions to ask to get you leads. For me, that means asking their business contacts if they have a website. If they have, is it generating results? Whatever the reply, it can open a discussion that means they can go on to recommend me. This way, other group members are looking for leads on your behalf – and you do the same for them.”
Richard, who is based in Gloucester, adds: “Refine your message so other group members can easily learn it. Be specific about who you’d like to be introduced to. I say that I provide creative, flexible, affordable websites for startups and small businesses in Gloucestershire, then repeat my name, and add: ‘brilliant designs mean better results.’”
“How networking boosted my business”
Former vet Rupert Hine changed his career to become a business coach with an ActionCOACH franchise. He credits networking for a large part his success.
“I originally got into veterinary medicine as I thought I would enjoy working with animals more than people. However, the more I worked as a vet, the more I realised that I loved the human relationship element of the job. As I started managing more people I realised management was the path I wanted to follow. To this day, helping people develop and make a difference to their lives gives me pleasure.”
He launched his ActionCOACH business in Kinross, Perth, in 2018. He was in franchise training with two other franchise partners who were also launching in Scotland. “We have continued to collaborate to this day, running group coaching sessions together as well as covering a large area of networking opportunities between us,” says Rupert.
“I started working with the business networking group BNI. I had a lot of experience talking in front of groups as a vet, but initially, BNI felt out of my comfort zone. That soon changed and it remains at the core of my marketing activity today. Building relationships and finding clients through networking suits me as I have always preferred connecting with people on a human level before working with them.”
Rupert’s strategy of organically growing his business through referrals and networking was a success.
“I continued to coach and attend virtual networking events during pandemic lockdowns, offering free sessions to business owners,” he says.
“It was rewarding to make a difference to the local community, and since the pandemic, my client base has grown to three times the size.”
“It’s not just socialising”
“I’d not done any business networking before, but my previous career as cabin crew in upper class meant that I was confident talking to anyone,” says Ross Le-Jeune. Ross is now the WPA Healthcare Practice Partner for Horsham and Worthing, helping customers, mainly SMEs and the self-employed, buy WPA medical insurance.
In the two years after launching his business, about 80 per cent of his leads came from networking. Now it’s about 40-50 per cent, with the rest coming from recommendations and referrals.
“WPA’s training, plus my experience in several networking groups, has developed my business, and honed my presentation skills,” says Ross.
“First you need to see networking as work, not just socialising. If you see it merely as socialising you can waste a lot of time.
“You need to work the whole room. Don’t stay with one group of people for the whole session – that way you miss out on lots of opportunities.”
Avoid getting trapped. “If after a few minutes chatting I think I have found some synergy with one person, I make an appointment to meet them later for coffee and give them my card,” says Ross.
Commit to networking regularly, he says: “People usually like to get to know you for a while before they recommend you, so keep showing up at the same groups regularly.”
Finally, he says: “The future is in the follow-up. Never forget to follow up after a session – otherwise, you have wasted your time networking.”
Linda Whitney writes about franchising for the Daily Mail, What Franchise and many other publications