Networking: Thrill to the chase

Hunting - now called networking - is a key skill that accountants should be honing: valuable new business will be the result. Will Kintish explains how to network effectively and with confidence

There's nothing quite so comfortable and secure for the accountant as sitting around all day waiting for business to come in. It's a way of life for many - after all, it is considerably easier than hitting the road in search of new business, or cultivating existing clients. As professional technicians, we were never introduced to the skills of marketing, selling and promotion; it wasn't in the exam syllabus, and only when we rose through the ranks were we expected to start playing those roles. Magic, just like that - our whole attitude to our daily work life was expected to change overnight.

The modern development of the profession is no different from any other business; so it is now no longer enough to do only a little networking if you want to be accepted as wholly successful. Marketing, selling and promotion are expected to be a major part of the duties in today's world, and as time goes on, it will be an even bigger part.

There is no choice other than to network more. I accept that you cannot do it immediately, but you must start by taking small steps in the right direction. You may feel uncomfortable at first, but like anything, consistent practice builds permanent skills.

Practitioners usually say that they are far too busy, and that the effort outweighs the rewards. Why bother to hunt, they argue, if plenty of good referrals are coming in?

Every day, clients and professional contacts drip away. They die, they retire, they sell or merge, and they change their alliances and allegiances. If you want to expand and flourish, you need a constant transfusion of new business, because this is your lifeblood. With referrals, you wait for others to make the move; with networking you are the one to make it happen. It is a case of proactive against reactive.

But if you feel successful and fulfilled, why bother to come out of your safe work environment? On the other hand, if you can cope with more business, there is no excuse not to seek it.

Get out hunting

Hunting - now called networking - is the fashionable and successful way to find new business. The dictionary definition of networking is: 'The activity of a group of people who exchange information, contacts and experiences for professional or social purposes.'

If you think this all sounds rather dull, then you are wrong - this is real hunting. Spot your quarry, thrill to the chase and develop a killer instinct. 'Too busy' to join the hunt (it's 'too time-consuming') often translates as 'lack of confidence' - the root cause of cave-dwelling.

However, if you accept the need to market, sell and promote, then look at the alternatives: advertising and PR are a scattergun approach, and often too expensive - direct mail has a disappointing 1% uptake and is expensive, and cold calling is too time-consuming and soul destroying.

In any case, in a vibrant professional partnership, there should never be a need for cold calling. Stop for a moment, and consider how many people you know. It will run into hundreds - existing clients, other professional contacts, friends, family, people at the sports or social club, committee members you may work with - and this is just for starters. Pool your resources with all the other key people in your office, and you have a big and valuable database. When you are out, it's not necessarily business from the people you meet that you want, but the opportunity to ask them: 'Who do you know who may be interested in…?'

See every invitation that lands on your desk as a business opportunity. Say to yourself: 'Aha, a chance to meet new contacts, to reinforce existing ones and increase my fees!' 'Work the room' enthusiastically, your confidence will build, you'll begin to enjoy these events and new business will flow.

Working the room is a generic phrase. It simply means talking to people, asking the right questions and most importantly, listening to the answers and creating opportunities. This should happen on holiday, at a social function, on the train or in the queue at the takeaway!

Now, do not misunderstand me, working the room requires the courage of a lion, and nerves of steel. If you feel a bit shy and nervous, don't worry. Most people feel exactly the same, and only the most accomplished and regular networker will feel at ease. A survey has just been released about people's fears - arachnophobia (fear of spiders) came out number one, and meeting groups of people was number two, so you are in good company!

What is the problem? On my workshops and training programmes, people say the problem is the fear of not knowing what to say, fear of saying the wrong thing or fear of meeting people for the first time. But probe a little deeper, and their real fear is of rejection.

The well-known international motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says: 'Fear? … False Evidence Appearing Real!' Quite right. How often have you been rejected at a business or social gathering? When was the last time someone turned their back on you, ignored you or rejected your extended hand?

No matter how many times I ask this question, the answer is always never.

Work that room

As a professional, it is anathema to sell - 'not the sort of things we professionals have ever been taught or trained to do!' Remember, networking is not selling. It is simply an activity to create an opportunity for moving to the next step, which you must do if you are serious about building your portfolio. Most of your best clients were once strangers.

On the other hand, there is some 'selling' to do but it is only of yourself. If you are a friendly and sociable person, networking will come naturally. If you are not … you will have to consider changing your attitude. Sorry - I have no answer to give other than simply that.

Let's now go into the room where there are 50 strange faces at the important reception you feel you just have to attend. Take a deep breath, approach someone new, ask permission to join them, introduce yourself and get their name. They will mentally hug you for approaching them and offer a silent prayer, because they are probably more nervous than you are.

After the initial introductions, start the most important part of building potential new relationships: the small talk. Smile, be friendly and start asking questions about them, their business, their holidays, where they have come from and so on. Often a topic of common interest arises and you have connected.

People love talking about themselves, so let them - you will learn everything you want to know if you ask the right questions. When it is your turn, be enthusiastic about what you do, and explain it clearly, emphasising what benefits your clients derive from the fact that you act for them.

When asked, 'What do you do?', try not to reply that you are an accountant - that is what you are, not what you do! What you do is help your clients become more successful, or whatever speciality it is you offer. Remember you don't get a second chance to make that first impression. As a fellow accountant, I can say that the image the listener gets when we say we are accountants is … well, need I say more!

I repeat, you do not do any selling, but you do need to become a skilful listener. Your attitude needs to be 'I cannot sell this person anything until I first learn more about them and I can only do this by listening'. It's surprising how little you need to explain about your services if you take the time to really listen. We are given two ears and one mouth - use them in that proportion.

You will take a different line if you are talking with potential new clients as opposed to potential new professional contacts, but the general principles remain the same. It's a cliché, but at the end of the day 'people buy people'.

Follow it up

If you think you could build on this first interaction, do not miss an opportunity. Ask for their card, read it, find something about it to comment on (which shows interest) and then ask permission to contact them in the next few days to find out more about their business, or if it is a fellow professional, to see what business you can do to your mutual benefit.

When you have made the positive first impression, people always say yes. If you don't follow up, what is the point in going to networking events in the first place? You must grasp the nettle and ask the question at the time, because you have just made a new 'friend'. Remember, when you don't ask the question, the answer will always be no!

Business cards are not as important as graphic designers would like you to believe. How many cards have impressed you so much that you wanted to do business with that person or company? Much more important is to gather cards and find a way to stay in touch. Some of the most successful people I know do not have business cards, but are demons at the follow-up.

When people don't return your calls, it doesn't mean they hate you. It usually means they are busy and disorganised. In many cases, they are grateful that you persisted in getting through to them. The fact that they did not return your call makes them feel in your debt, and when you finally speak to them in person they are more likely to give you some time.

If you believe there is a real chance of building a relationship and doing business to your mutual benefit, stay on the case until your target either says yes or no. Your time invested in this follow-up activity will generally pay greater dividends than starting the process from scratch.

Gatekeepers, such as personal assistants, receptionists and secretaries, can be very good at keeping others out! This group of people are vital along the route to the new fee, and you must use the same methods you used 'in the room' to get to your quarry. Be friendly, use small talk, and keep asking questions.

Practice makes perfect

Personally, I never hear 'no' - I only hear 'not yet'. However, it must be said that there is, of course, a point at which it is time to call it a day; experience will help you identify this moment.

The practised networker understands that one must go into the process with the attitude 'How can I help you?' rather than 'What's in it for me?' However, this is a whole topic in its own right, which we haven't the space to deal with here.

Networking is like learning to drive or to touch-type - it's always a bit uncomfortable at first. But how long does this feeling last? You will soon feel just as comfortable about networking as you do behind the wheel of your car or at your word processor.

There's a common theme to driving, typing and networking. Practice, and a positive attitude, creates a new habit.

Four questions to ask yourself

Am I good at what I do? Do I provide a great service? Have I got the capacity to take on more? Do I want more fees?

If you can answer 'yes' to all these questions, then leave your cave and go hunting.

Will Kintish FCA of Kintish Business Coaching was a partner in a medium-sized regional firm for 35 years. He now trains and coaches in the art of networking, specialising in the professions (

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