The benefits of face-to-face networking were certainly appreciated by life coach Richard Harris when he enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to the European Startup Festival in Turin earlier this month.
“The opportunity to give a talk at the festival arose from a contact I had met at a University of Essex business department event,” explains Harris, who last year became a freelance life coach following three years as boss of private tutoring firm Tutor Desk.
“It was a wonderful experience both personally and professionally and it would never have happened without that face-to-face chat in Essex!”
At the festival itself, Harris used his time mingling at coffee breaks to do some more valuable networking. “Networking online is faster and has easier access to a much wider group of people. However, such a mechanical approach makes creating real and beneficial friendships tricky,” he says. “In real life you feel the energy of true human contact. Half of what I learned about business came from my face-to-face network. We share stories and swap numbers for good accountants or web developers. My fellow networkers give me inspiration.”
Most business types – despite the rise of social media – feel the same. According to GreatBusinessSchools.org, 95% believe face-to-face networking is essential for working relationships, finding them more positive and credible than their online equivalent. “It remains the most important form of networking for all types of SMEs, with two-thirds doing it each week,” says Mark Saunders, a professor in the Department of Management at the University of Birmingham. “Networking is about making contacts and building a community which can offer feedback, expertise and the potential for outsourcing work or joining in new business ventures.”
Why face-to-face is best
Typical forms of face-to-face networking include speed networking events, where, as with the dating equivalent, entrepreneurs meet a large group of strangers and have a short period of time to impress or be impressed.
Networking conferences and breakfast meeting clubs are other options. And more informal opportunities often arise during coffee breaks at conferences, business or social events.
“Face-to-face gives you energy and banter and adds more trust and value to a business relationship,” explains Jason Dutton, managing director of 4Networking, which offers guaranteed one-to-one meetings and presentation slots during its 5,000 annual business networking meetings. “We get like-minded business people together to talk. You can always feel the buzz in the room which creates the perfect environment to do business.”
“Some see face-to-face as a sales pitch and are too direct. Because we are Brits, if someone does that, our instinct is to shuffle away quickly,” continues Dutton. “Please don’t sell! The key advice is to be yourself. Be open and honest, fun and energetic, and ensure that the person you are speaking to understands you and your services. Listen to them and ask questions about their business. Try to get a follow up in the shape of a card or contact email.”
For more informal events, there are subtle differences. “At a more casual event, you will be in a room where people are not necessarily looking to network and instead stand staring down at their phones,” says Dutton. “Just go up and politely ask what they do. People like to talk about themselves, so listen and you might develop another crucial contact.” Get the tone right and these conversations can help you find your next supplier, client or referral.
Harris agrees, saying that you need to show authenticity, humility and friendliness on your first approach – together with just a hint of ‘pushiness’. “Face to face can be intimidating and awkward, especially at some networking events where the members all seem to have a rapacious and desperate look in their eyes!
“In the UK we are unassuming and reserved, but this will hinder your networking progress. Instead, try to be a little more forward than you are usually comfortable with,” he says. “Be robust and you will find, as I have, that some of the most magnificent business doors have been opened as a result of face-to-face networking.”