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Contacts on a plate

The days of wine-soaked working lunches may be over, but networking is still important

When it comes to work, hours are getting longer, the lunch break is getting
shorter and the pressure is on to be smarter and deliver faster. In this
hard-working environment there is a perception that people are too busy and
important to enjoy a business lunch or go to an event to network.

Unfortunately, those who take this view may be missing out on valuable ways
of extending their range of business contacts. Indeed, an increasing proportion
of business is being carried out away from the office in ‘social’ situations and
your ability to mingle can help promote yourself and your firm.

The notion of ‘clubability’ is particularly important in accountancy where
competition is fierce – not just for winning new business, but retaining it over
time as well.

There’s been talk of the decline of the business lunch, but if London’s
teeming restaurants are anything to go by, the business lunch is still a valid
form of corporate entertainment, although the norm is no longer ‘a boozy lunch’.

Our research found that only two fifths (39%) of managers now think that it
is perfectly acceptable to drink alcohol, such as a glass of wine, at a business
lunch. Indeed, the majority (57%) of bosses believe it’s acceptable not to even
offer alcohol to guests.

This contrasts somewhat with the champagne lunches of the 1980s. Although
business lunches now tend to be shorter and more sober affairs they still offer
an effective means of building and maintaining relationships and can be a lot
less daunting than trying to ‘work the room’ at a conference.

A lost art

Networking has actually become more difficult over time, particularly for
those who are under 40 years old, because of the way that we are brought up.

As for the more youthful, the rise of television and computer games means
many people are more comfortable interacting with a screen than another person.
The decline of the family dinner has also reduced our exposure to practising
polite conversation. Many are frightened of talking to strangers because they
are scared of the unknown and also of what they do not know.

Fortunately, there are ways of getting round this. The key is preparation.
First, know yourself. This may seem silly, but spending some time developing an
interesting soundbite about yourself can get you off to a good start and boost
your confidence early on.

Second, try to have an awareness of current events as this can help stimulate
a debate and get people talking. Choose stories that everyone is likely to have
an opinion about, not something highly technical.

Third, fear can often arise as a result of what you don’t know about the
other person. To overcome this, take some time before the event to work out who
you want to speak to and what they are interested in. Finding common ground will
help you make easy conversation with someone new.

The fact that networking takes place in a variety of environments can also be
quite daunting. Corporate golfing days, cocktail parties and even fishing and
sailing trips are all popular ways of building and maintaining business
relationships in a relaxed environment. But just because your networking is
taking place in a less formal environment should not mean that you treat it less
seriously. Your company may be spending lots of money on entertaining, so plan
for the occasion as carefully as you would an important meeting.

Following up a lead is just as important as making the initial contact.
Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to offer your business card
and say something along the lines of: ‘Would you like to meet up so that we can
talk further?’ The fact that we are increasingly busy means the follow up may
not be a leisurely lunch but rather a quick coffee or breakfast meeting. These
can be just as effective.

However, the increasing desire for a work-life balance means you need to have
a good reason to infringe on personal time, so think about whether a phone call
is more appropriate. The most important thing is to take the initiative and
qualify the lead.

THE GOLDEN RULES OF NETWORKING

When it comes to increasing your profile within your profession it’s sometimes
difficult to know where to begin. If the thought of networking at a corporate
event leaves your blood running cold, don’t worry, help is at hand. Follow the
top tips below for maximum success:

• Plan thoroughly. Treat the event as you would an important meeting. For
example, who do you particularly want to speak to? What do you want to achieve?

• Think about body language. You only have a moment to make a good
impression. A confident handshake and smile will help you come across as
friendly and professional.

• Arresting soundbite. This should be a concise 30 to 40 second description
of yourself and what you do. This will make it easier to break the ice and make
the first move? Something others may be too shy to do.

• Open-ended questions. These should help draw the other person out and
promote conversation.

• Never complain about the job or colleagues and don’t drink too much. This
will make you stand out for all the wrong reasons.

• Graceful exits. Exits are often overlooked as people focus on starting a
conversation. Having a few skilful remarks gives you the opportunity to move on
and speak to others.

• Follow up. Networking is just one part of the sales process. Make sure you
qualify the lead by following it up with a phone call, coffee or lunch.

Khalid Aziz is chairman of the Aziz Corporation, an executive
communications consultancy

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