Networking events are useful for growing your business, so long as you do not just use them as an opportunity to sell too aggressively.
Effective networking is primarily about meeting new people and then deciding if they are worth contacting later. Some might be potential clients or suppliers; others merely people with whom you found some empathy and a common sense of purpose.
Networking events can be intimidating for even the most extrovert characters, but a simple way of introducing yourself into a group of strangers is via the simple request, "may I join you?".
You should first ask where a person is from and what business they are in. Next, you might try to elicit a customer story to add some colour to the conversation. From there, you should use your instincts as to whether the conversation is worth pursuing.
If you do sense that there is some common ground, you can ask them why they were at the event, hoping to uncover any potential sales needs that you might be able to address. To show that you have immediate value, you should respond with factual information such as a useful website, or even recommend someone from your own network who you feel might be useful to contact.
The key is to establish quickly that you are interesting, which in the early stages of a business relationship is a combination of practical information and a good personal network. If you are able to establish this successfully, then they should be happy to receive an e-mail to set up a meeting, which is when the sales process can be started in a structured way.
While attending networking events should always have an underlying sales purpose, the wider objective is about increasing your circle of contacts. The people you connect with successfully can then reciprocate with their own valuable information and interesting people.
Our lives are dominated by mobile phones and e-mails, impersonal tools that can often take the spirit out of an enterprise. Networking events are useful for reminding us that business should always contain some element of human contact.
Originally published in The Mail on Sunday. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2012. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.