How to Network at Conferences and Actually Get Results

handing out business cards

A little over a week ago, I put on nice clothes and commuted into San Francisco for Day One of AdvaMed’s Digital MedTech Conference. My goals were to learn about topics relevant to my business and to make a few connections that would lead to new business. I succeeded on Part A. The networking part? Room for improvement. 

Before I hopped on BART (the train from Oakland to SF), I spoke with business coach John Bulman, MBA. He’s kept me accountable and helped me up my marketing game for most of this year. 

John asked about my usual process when meeting people at conferences and networking events. Uh, I don’t have one!  

Generally, it’s something like this: if I make eye contact with someone, I introduce myself. Make small talk, usually something not about business: the weather, the talk we just heard, the traffic, etc. Then I might ask something about their business. If they ask about my work, I’ll tell them. We may or may not exchange business cards. If we do, I’ll follow up with a “nice to meet you” email the next day. If they say they have no cards but they’re on LinkedIn, I’ll find them there.

For someone who would much rather sit and listen to a lecture and take notes, or not go to an event at all, this seemed like a pretty good approach. Historically, conferences haven’t led to much new business for me, so maybe there is some room for improvement.

John suggested I take a different approach. His approach is much more relationship-based and personal than even my small talk about the weather. Here’s the gist:

• When you meet people who are decision-makers that need your help and who can send you business, your job is to get “a meeting after the meeting.”  That means a phone call or, if they’re local, a coffee/breakfast/lunch meeting to discuss opportunities.  

The reason for this is to start a RELATIONSHIP. You develop relationships by speakingto the person (not emails) and finding out what the person does, their challenges and what they’re working on. The goal is to get a sense of how you can help them.  As Steven Covey said, first seek to understand, then to be understood. 

• How do you get a meeting after the meeting? Ask.  Say, “That sounds very interesting. I’d like to know more.  Would you be open to [insert meeting type here] next week so we can talk further?”  

• They agree. Say, “Great!  What’s the best way to connect with you tomorrow to set up a meeting?”  

• Schedule the meeting and show up. Ask them questions about themselves, their business and the challenges they face. Asking questions shows you care about them. You can also get information that will help you figure out how you can help them.

Doing this in person or on the phone allows you to create a relationship and pick up on nuances you wouldn’t get from email. And besides, although I think and communicate best through writing, not everyone does.   

• The day after the meeting, follow up with an email thanking them for their time. Recap what you discussed, what they need and how you can best help them. Send a few relevant writing samples if applicable.

• If this first step doesn’t lead to immediate business (it likely won’t unless it’s a case of divine right timing), set reminders on your calendar (I live my business by Google Calendar) to follow up with your new lead periodically. I generally follow up with prospective clients one a month unless the conversation dictates otherwise.

There you go! The AdvaMed event didn’t give me much opportunity to try John’s approach. At the post-event “networking reception,” guests stayed at their respective little bar tables. I did meet four really interesting, intelligent people—mainly on the product development and QA side of medtech—and had great discussion about fixing our broken healthcare system. I consider that a positive outcome even if it didn’t lead to meeting any big-time decision-makers who wanted to put me on a fat retainer. 

Pushing myself kicking and screaming into more in-person networking, I registered for a health technology event to be held next week in San Francisco. I plan to put John’s approach into practice. I’ll let ya’ll know what happens!

Got any good networking tips? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of Derek A., Flickr

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