Party gain, not party pain

Your company or firm has organised its annual bash for clients, prospects and intermediaries and you have been signed up to act as a ‘host’. Or, equally painfully, a client with whom you have next to no personal contact has invited the whole account team to their Christmas shindig.

Either way, you are looking forward to it like the proverbial hole in the head. And, given that there is no such thing as a free lunch, you know someone upstairs will be looking for you to provide some kind of return for being invited to this ‘jolly’.

The social stereotype of accountants – beancounters with less than average social skills – is grossly unrepresentative. Research by events organisers West End Events found that accountants are perceived to be the wildest party-goers. A not wholly untypical respondent to the survey commented: ‘With a few drinks inside him, our FD becomes Elvis.’

But rhinestone suits aside, mixing with clients is an art requiring a different, and somewhat less uninhibited approach. Even the most accomplished networker will rarely admit that such social intercourse is enjoyable. Fortunately, our observations of effective social influencers have shown that success is a combination of control, confidence and skill, all of which can be trained and developed.

Follow these steps to negotiating this social minefield, and you will emerge unscathed and with something positive from your efforts.

Pre-event briefing
Be clear on your goals. Is it to make contacts, to glean intelligence about a market initiative, or is it a prelude to a more formal business meeting? Find out the purpose of the event, if necessary by demanding a briefing in advance. Where interaction with other companies is involved, there is no such thing as a purely ‘social’ activity. And your bosses will be looking for some return on their investment.

Team ‘choreography’
If you are attending as a team, assigning different roles is essential if you are to work the room to full effect, even if there are just two of you. A military-style ‘campaign’ approach ensures that you make contact with the right people, maximises the opportunities to achieve your objectives and allows you to play to your teams’ individual strengths.

Meeters and greeters (perhaps junior staff members) undertake initial contact and manage introduction to appropriate senior staff. These ‘statues’, by contrast, are probably most critical in building relationships and achieving higher level objectives, and will tend to stay in one place.

Some team members can act as a sort of ‘warm-up act’ and others can help the ‘statues’ move on to other guests. Highly technical staff, for whom such social events can be particularly tortuous, can be used tactically to target similar staff from other organisations.

Moving in on your target
If the person you want to speak to is in conversation with other people, take time to assess the situation. If the discussion appears particularly intense or animated, wait for a natural break. Initially, when hovering on the edge, make eye contact and nod your head – this indicates an understanding of the matter under discussion and people will typically move aside to let you join the group.

If you are not ‘invited in’, be persistent. Look for a pause and make a ‘labelled interruption’. This may be a question, such as: ‘Could I ask something at this point?’ or a comment, such as, ‘Could I add …?’

The art of purposeful conversation
One pitfall is never progressing beyond social chit-chat, for fear of causing offence through a crass sales pitch. Another is misjudging the mood and purpose of the event, either by pitching straight into their company’s products and sales performance or by asking such blunt questions as, ‘are you the person responsible for making the buying decisions?’

The key to purposeful conversation is to establish the right balance between social and business-oriented discussion. The trick is to listen for – and create – links which will enable you to move easily from one form of conversation to the other, thus preserving the essentially lighter nature of the event while still moving forward from a business perspective.

Moving on
Having achieved your objective, how can you extricate yourself from a conversation and move on without causing offence? Team choreography can help, by using a more junior colleague to continue the conversation. To draw your discussion to a close, avoid reverting to a lame excuse, (‘excuse me, I must go to the bar’or the blunt ‘I’m sorry, I have to talk to someone else’) Show interest, but at the same time flag up your intention to draw the conversation to a close. Try: ‘I’d like to ask you one more question before I have to move on.’

Don’t forget what you have learned
It is likely you will have forgotten some or all of the useful conversational gems by the following morning. Record them on the back of business cards as the evening progresses or by using a dictaphone when you return to your car or hotel room. Just try not to give hand-notated business cards out to others – it’s easily done and potentially embarrassing.

Internal debriefing
Much of the potential benefit can be lost or diminished once people return to the hurly-burly of business life. Make sure a de-brief takes place as soon as possible. Excellent business opportunities can emerge from even seemingly intangible or minor nuggets of information. By involving the whole team, everyone feels they are making a contribution, and it builds confidence for the next event.

Always follow up
For the same reason, it is essential after the event to maintain contact with those you met and exchange details with. You might not know where each could lead but if you do nothing, you can be certain they will lead nowhere.

Client parties may never be something that you actively enjoy. But they can – and should – be at least bearable and not the uncomfortable, toe-curling nightmares of the past.

Peter Belsey is sector head of the financial services division of behaviour change consultants Huthwaite International.

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