Networking to build your consulting business can always be tricky. In many ways, COVID hasn’t made it easier, especially with so many people feeling stressed and overwhelmed. And let’s face it, the switch to doing everything remotely is causing an epidemic of virtual fatigue syndrome.
But you still have a consulting business to start, build, or grow, right? So networking is still a must. In fact, it’s more important than ever.
How do you do it in a way that recognizes the unique circumstances we all find ourselves in? And how do you do it in a way that achieves your business goals?
Well…I offer you the following “commandants” to guide your decisions.
1. Thou Shalt Have a Plan.
As with most things, random acts of networking yield random results. If you are trying to launch or grow your consulting business, you have to have a multi-pronged plan that creates the results you want. Networking should be a significant part of that plan, especially when you first start and can expect to get most of your initial clients through networking.
That means you have to know who you are trying to get business from and what you can offer them that solves their problems and helps them achieve what they want to achieve. That means you have to know how to connect with them and connect with people who know or can influence them.
You also have to have a plan for connecting with people in your market generally and engaging them. That includes checking in with people to see how they are and hearing and celebrating what they are doing.
And you have to set aside dedicated time and energy to do your homework and take action on a regular (I’d say weekly) basis.
2. Thou Shalt Care About Them More Than Getting Business.
Relationships are primary. Always. If you want to have a robust, sustainable consulting business, you need to prioritize creating and fostering authentic relationships. All of your interactions cannot merely be transactional and for your purposes. People don’t like that. You don’t like that.
Whoever you are networking with should never feel like you only care about your needs and getting them to give you or help you get business. And don’t try to fake it because people can tell.
I know that’s a tough one because you are a business and you have to reach out to people to get business. What I’m saying is to orient yourself toward them and their needs instead of your own. If you have the right plan in place, that should be easier because you will know who they are and why you can help make their lives better! Or you’ll know that when you are reaching out to them, it is only to make a good relationship connection and not only for the purpose of getting business from them.
3. Thou Shalt Not Reach Out Only When You Need Something.
This is the most common mistake consultants make with networking. You network, get business, and then just focus on doing that work. Then that engagement ends, there’s little or nothing in your pipeline, and you reach out to your network again, now frantic to get business.
This violates both commandments 2 and 3. If that feast or famine cycle is happening, it likely means that you don’t have a plan that you are executing on a regular basis. It also means you will be less likely to prioritize relationships over business. And people will be able to tell.
So have a plan to reach out when you are not hungry for work. It will help you keep your pipeline full and change the quality of your conversations.
4. Thou Shalt Provide Value.
One of the best things you can do while networking is to provide value, not just sell the promise of value if they hire you. This gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to provide value to who you want business from and raises their interest in working with you. It also can ignite the magic of trust and reciprocity, which are key pillars upon which networks are built.
This can be as simple as providing valuable intel when you reach out to people in your network. Or you could send relevant articles or insights to people you are networking with. You could post educational content on LinkedIn and follow up with people who like or comment on the content. I also advise developing an email list to build your own network. You can use this to provide content with value, such as sending out newsletters filled with information that is valuable to who you want business from or a link to your latest podcast or blog.
This also should include helping people in your network, such as connecting them with other people who can help them and offering advice and guidance in their times of need.
5. Thou Shalt Make It Low Burden for People in Your Network.
As you know, a lot of people are having a rough time professionally and personally during COVID. Many folks are feeling stretched thin and have less time and energy for anything—even something as wonderful as talking to you! So, make it as easy as possible for them when you are networking with them.
Give them a link to schedule time with you instead of doing the dreaded back and forth emailing trying to find a time. Make sure your technology works so it’s not yet another meeting they are in where there's a struggle with the technology. If you ask them for something, make it easy for them to follow up. For example, if you want them to introduce you to someone, offer to write the email for them. If you want them to share something you created, include links instead of attachments so all they have to do is send the email. Do anything you can to give them an experience that is the easiest and most pleasurable part of their week.
Go Forth and Network
If you follow these guidelines, networking will yield more business results. It’s also a great way to connect on a human level. Last week, I reached out to someone in my network who had been a client years ago and since became a consultant and friend. She was having a tough time…and, admittedly, so was I. We gave each other emotional support, got each other laughing, and talked about what we were doing in our businesses. By the end of the call, we figured out that she could help other folks in my network who needed something that I couldn’t do.
Did I get business? Nope. But I got to connect good people and help folks who need it. And that’s how I want to live my life and run my business. After 10 years doing just that, I can tell you that is at the heart of building a successful consulting business that you can be rely on and be proud of.