Network Like a Pro
Turning Coffee Dates into Real Business
Conventional business advice says that meeting over coffee is a great way to build your network. Face-to-face networking can pay off, but if you’re not careful, time spent networking can quickly turn into time spent not working. Here’s a look at strategies for making the most of coffee dates and turning them into real business.
Prequalify your coffee dates
Depending on how busy you are, you may need to be selective about whom you meet for coffee. If you’re building a client base from scratch, then maybe you’ll want to meet with anyone and everyone, because you never know where those meetings might lead.
But if your time is more limited, you’ll want to be strategic about which invites you accept or extend to others and focus on meeting people who either fit your ideal client or can refer you to your ideal client. Do you have a specific reason for wanting to meet that person? Or have they given you a really compelling reason?
In her article for Harvard Business Review, Dorie Clark offers these tips on declining a networking request. Never accept a coffee invitation out of obligation, because that’s time that could be better spent nurturing your business in other ways. Also, just because you’ve had coffee with someone once doesn’t mean you have to agree to weekly or monthly coffee meetings if it doesn’t make sense of your business.
Research the person in advance
Once you’ve arranged a meeting over coffee, spend a few minutes researching the other person. What are they tweeting about? Who do they know on LinkedIn? Do you share an alma mater or any professional affiliations?
You definitely don’t want your coffee meeting to be purely transactional and all about what they can do for you, but understanding their goals and interests in advance can lead to better conversations and connections. Let the conversation flow naturally, but think about areas of common interest that you could discuss.
Before you ask for someone’s business or request a referral, try to find out what small thing would make their life easier or better. Do a small favor for them or share a resource that might be helpful based on their needs or interests. Maybe it’s recommending a great winery for their upcoming trip to Tuscany or sharing a link to an article on their favorite author.
The operative word here is small. You’re not offering to cat-sit for a week or driving them to the airport, but small gestures build a sense of reciprocity and show that it’s not a one-sided relationship.
Prep your elevator pitch
An elevator pitch is a short, polished description of why someone should hire you. If you found yourself in an elevator with a high-level executive, your ideal client or an important influencer, what would you tell them in 30 seconds before they reach the top floor that would be persuasive and memorable? That’s your elevator pitch. Over at All Business, Pete Savage offers tips on preparing yours.
You won’t launch into your pitch as soon as you sit down to coffee and you’ll have more than 30 seconds, but you want a succinct, well-prepared description so you won’t find yourself tongue-tied when the other person asks about your business.
As you learn more about the other person and their needs, you can tailor the pitch to them. For instance, say you’re a professional organizer who works with a few different types of clients. If you met someone who was seeking help for her aging parents, you’d focus on how you help seniors downsize when talking to that prospect.
Before you end the meeting, have a reason to follow up and stay in touch. Maybe you promised to send your favorite recipe for vegan cupcakes or they asked for more information on your personal training services. Ask what mode of communication they prefer for staying in touch, and make sure that you follow through on any promises you’ve made. Failing to follow through reflects poorly on you, even if you were legitimately busy (as we all are).
Put a note on your calendar to follow up periodically or (if they give you permission) add them to your email list so you’ll stay top of mind the next time they need to hire a hair stylist, plumber, tutor or other independent service provider. Someone may not have a need for your services when you first meet or they may need more time to warm up, but over time, the hope is that repeated interactions will build trust and land you the business.
Not a coffee person? The same rules apply whether you’re inviting someone for a walking meeting, breakfast, lunch, smoothies or a round of beer. The point is to give some thought to why you are meeting with them, search for commonalities and follow up afterwards.