Network, network, network. You hear it all the time. From business magazines, leaders, and colleagues.
But, people in consulting have an interesting challenge: building relationships within their client firm(s). Networking in your company, or at events, is one thing; but, when it comes to client stakeholders, there's a different set of rules.
There's also clear and powerful benefits to networking with client stakeholders.
Why network with clients?
There's a ton of reasons, but let's focus on just 5:
Let's be honest, sometimes it takes time to convince your clients that you know what you're talking about. An informal conversation over coffee, or lunch, can have a huge impact on accelerating that process.
People trust people they know. Reading an impressive profile, won't make anyone trust you. Personal connections, conversations, and honest work are where trust is built.
Diffuses hostile situations
I've seen hostile, frustrated clients, transformed into grateful advocates. When they know you understand them, they'll want your help creating solutions.
Allows you to informally socialize ideas
Having an open line of communication, to informally pitch ideas, is huge. Getting directional feedback, outside the normal day-to-day cadence, allows you to plan better and build consensus before presenting a polished solution.
Creates long-term relationships
There's life, and opportunities, beyond the current project. Developing relationships with your clients, may create valuable opportunities or connections, years into the future. Don't underestimate the value of this.
Client Networking, Step-By-Step Guide:
Alright, now let's get practical. By the end of this post, I want you to have a clear vision, for how to initiate connections, conduct conversations, and stay-in-touch intentionally. Let's get started!
How to initiate connections:
If you already know them:
Ask for a 15 minute coffee chat (note: 15 minutes is strategic, 5 minutes is not realistic, and 30 minutes sounds like a big commitment.
Ask in-person (whenever possible).
Provide a reason/topic (example: I'd love to hear your perspective on where the industry is headed).
If they say "yes", send a calendar invite.
If they say "no", ask if there's another time (most people are receptive to this, but if you get a "hard no", respect it).
If you don't know them:
Get an introduction (ideal).
Send an email requesting 15 minute coffee chat.
If they say "yes", send a calendar invite.
If they say "no", ask if there's another time
What to talk about:
Make small talk:
Lead with "how are you", or similar.
If they give a genuine answer, make a little small talk (for example: weather, weekend plans, etc).
If they give a brief response, and quickly change the subject, then go straight into your main topic.
Small talk is a personality thing, some people value it, others don't.
Discuss industry trends:
Industry trends, and high-level market news, is a great starting point.
Keep it professional, while taking a step away from the day-to-day work.
Come prepared with discussion points and questions.
Ask thoughtful questions:
People generally like to talk about themselves, and respond well to good questions.
Listen carefully, your goal is to understand them, and to make them feel understood.
Show excitement about the industry, or interest in the field.
Tell them what you love about their firm, and/or your firm.
People like working with others, who are engaged and excited about the work.
Look for natural opportunities to weave in past experiences - this creates connections and credibility.
Ask about their past projects, and background.
Once you've established some goodwill, maybe not in the first connection, begin to socialize ideas.
Ask for their thoughts (not commitments).
Listen carefully, and seek to understand their perspective.
Don't say anything that reflects negatively on you, them, or either firm.
A casual conversation can make complaints, and little jabs, tempting. Don't do it.
How to follow-up afterwards:
Send them an email
Send it within 24 hours.
Keep it short (2-3 sentences max.).
Mention something specific, that they said (for example: "Thanks for grabbing coffee yesterday, it was great to hear your perspective on X").
Plan future connections
Decide if you'd like to prioritize this relationship.
If yes, add a regular reminder for yourself, to reach out to them periodically
Frequency will vary, keep it regular, but not burdensome (every 3-6 weeks is a good rule of thumb)
There you have it, a step-by-step outline, to help you get started. Now get out there, and start building those client relationships today!