In the past, the term “networking” implied face-to-face interaction. As a management consulting professional seeking to make business contacts, you might meet someone, get to know them, and develop a relationship grounded in both business and personal activities.
To get to know a potential client or business partner, for example, you might chat with them at both an industry conference and on golf outings.
The afternoon on the greens, the face-to-face meet and greet: these are the old rules of networking. Once, not so very long ago, they were absolutely necessary steps. Your entire networking strategy depended on:
- Finding where people would be
- Leaving the office
- Getting a face-to-face meeting
Typically, all of this one-on-one engagement required significant investments: travel costs, registration fees at conferences, and most importantly, time.
But today, the world has changed – and so have the rules. Networking has grown to mean something much broader and more flexible. Many firms don’t know how to network effectively in this new environment, but others are taking advantage of new opportunities to accomplish networking goals more efficiently than ever before.
The Era of Change
What is driving these changes in the ways effective professionals network? There’s no single answer, but two of the most important are:
- Technology. From social media to the rise of the smartphone to intuitive, accessible video chat, technological advances have made it possible to communicate easily with professional contacts from almost anywhere on Earth – at your convenience.
- Generational shifts. Younger professionals have grown up with much of the technology above. These individuals don’t view social media or instant messaging as a special tool: it’s simply how they communicate and network.
- Time. Between economic pressures and the need for increasingly lean business processes, today’s executives are starved for time. The more slow-paced networking strategies of times past – an executive golf trip, for example – aren’t always practical now.
The world has changed, so how can firms adapt? There are five key rules for today’s professional services networking world:
1) You need to be wherever your clients are – and use whatever technology they’re using.
This doesn’t mean that every person you need to network with uses social media or other technologies. But research shows that about 60% of buyers use social media to check out firms. You need to be where these potential clients are – and if you neglect new networking platforms, you’re going to miss out on them.
One important thing to remember about how to network online is that social media and similar tools allow for asynchronous networking. For face-to-face networking, you have to find (and reach) a time and place where all parties can meet, which is sometimes a daunting task for time-strapped executives. But with asynchronous platforms, each party can engage in a conversation when they have a chance, making communication much easier and cheaper to arrange.
2) Use networking to establish your expertise.
At one time, there were only a handful of ways to convey your expertise to those in your marketplace. Your options were face-to-face conversation, print media, speaking engagements, or referrals.
Now, there are many more ways you can show people what you know – while reaching an audience that is both larger and more focused. LinkedIn Groups, for example, allow you to share your own educational content and build your credibility in a community dedicated to continuously discussing your industry.
Remember: research shows that expertise is one of the most important ways people make selections for management consulting services.
3) Content is crucial for networking.
Today, networking isn’t just about getting to know you as an individual – it’s about getting to know what you have to offer as a problem-solver. When you share educational content, it offers potential clients a useful resource while demonstrating exactly how you think about industry problems and what you offer in the way of solutions.
This is particularly important for management consulting because so much of your expertise consists in how you define and think about a problem. If a client’s sales are slumping, you could think of that as a sales training problem, a lead generation problem, or a product problem.
The way you conceptualize the issue will guide the solution you choose. Your educational content helps clients frame problems and shows them how you deliver solutions.
4) Influencers are increasingly important.
Individuals who recommend service providers or solutions – folks who are involved in decisions – have always been important. But today, more and more decisions are being made based on in-depth research into the matter at hand, and this means you are often dealing with a much larger team. Put simply, there are more people you need to know, or on whom you need to make an impression.
Today, if you need to convince a client of your expertise or approach, you often need to convince a critical mass of people on the team rather than one single decision-maker. Social media and other online networking tools make it much easier and much more efficient to facilitate communication with this wider group of influencers.
5) Offer something of value.
As organizations grow leaner and advances in productivity change the way firms do business, executives everywhere are becoming more and more time-starved. For these professionals, a casual networking trip to the golf course is either impractical or a significant investment that has to come with a significant return.
In today’s fast-paced, often digital networking world, executives and other influencers want to know exactly what they’re getting for their efforts. If you’re going to take clients’ time, either online or in-person, you have to make sure that you offer them something of value in the relationship.
As you get to know a new contact through social media, pointing them toward content that is highly relevant to their problems is an effective way to swiftly demonstrate that you understand their problems and know how to deliver solutions.
What works best?
We arrive, then, at the big question: is face-to-face networking really the best way to make new business contacts in the management consulting industry? Not necessarily.
No one answer is going to be right for every client. But it is clear that to remain competitive and reach a wide body of potential clients, you need to know how to network online.
For more information, check out our free research study: How Buyers Buy Management Consulting Services.