No matter which breeds, disciplines or segments of the industry command your attention, there are groups of people with similar interests who meet at regularly scheduled times.
Those gatherings might be to planhorse shows, take trail rides or attend events. Those participants might be members of local, state or regional groups. Or you might be meeting your peers at local, state or national veterinary conferences, such as the AAEP Annual Convention.
There aren’t many equine professionals who don’t attend meetings centered around a shared industry interest that includes people you know and don’t know. How do you make the most of these meetings for yourself and your business?
Here are five tips to help you network at an industry gathering.
Tip #1. Prepare for the Meeting
Don’t forget that networking is work. While some people make it look easy because they have no fear of talking to people they don’t know about things they might or might not care about, others really don’t like those types of affairs. In fact, they would rather muck out 50 stalls or palpate a dozen unruly mares than have to stand around with a drink in their hand making “small talk” with people they don’t know, or think they don’t want to know. And what good is that going to do for your bottom line?
If you are running an equine business, then those meetings are a great place to market yourself or your business in the regular course of conversation. And keep in mind that you might not want to know someone, but you might need to know that person, and have him or her know you.
Whether you are a pro at these types of gatherings or you hate them (but recognize the necessity of being in attendance), preparing for networking opportunities will make the evening go smoother and more profitably.
And if you are attending an educational conference, then there are even more reasons to stick out your hand, meet new people and collect contact information while handing out your own.
Here are some things you can do to prepare for that networking opportunity:
Make sure you know where you are going and what the schedule is for the meeting.
Know who the meeting leaders are and who the speaker or speakers are supposed to be and the topics on which they are speaking.
Take plenty of business cards, a notebook and a pen; or you can use your smartphone or tablet to take notes and enter contact information.
Make sure your business cards are easily accessible; don’t make yourself have to dig around for them when you meet someone and don’t have dirty, torn or otherwise unprofessional-looking business cards. (See “Business Cards: More Than Your Name and Phone Number” for tips on making your business cards work harder for you.)
When you determine who will be (or might be) at the meeting, make a “hit list” of the people you want to meet or with whom you’d like to talk. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a neighboring vet with whom you’d like to find a way to work, or a speaker who might offer you advice on a specific case or topic. Write that person’s name down in your notebook or set a reminder on your phone.
Even better, connect with that person before the meeting and set a time and place to meet during the event.
Get a business card or write down the contact information in your notebook, smartphone or tablet for everyone you meet. Also, jot down something else about them (i.e., what you discussed, some things about which they are passionate or in which they are involved, their horses’ names, shared gym membership, people you know in common) to give you something to chat about next time.
Tip #2. Arrive Early for the Meeting
If you are going to the meeting for business, then make the most of it. If there is a “cocktail hour” or social time before the meeting, get there when it starts. Don’t get there halfway through. Usually there isn’t enough time to get around to everyone at those meetings, so you need to give yourself plenty of time.
For the people who don’t like to mingle and make small talk, this is a difficult task. But again, think about it like mucking a stall: It’s work, and it’s up to you to get through the muck and make something of it!
Don’t allow yourself to stand alone during the pre-meeting, and don’t sit by yourself at dinner or during lectures. Pick out someone else standing alone or sitting alone and go up and introduce yourself. If you did your homework, then you might already have a dinner companion or someone who will be at that presentation who has the same interests that you do.
If you truly have social fears, enlist the help of an outgoing friend or colleague to walk around with you to help you get started. Doing this at your college evening events is a good way to stay in touch with people with whom you already have something in common.
Tip #3. Have Something to Talk About
The problem most people have talking to strangers is that they feel like they have nothing to say. The good thing about going to an industry meeting is that you already know you have something in common with everyone there.
Is there an event or horse show coming up that people will be attending? Did one just happen? Bring that up. If you know something about the person (one of her students won the hunter hack at the last show, or she just sold a three-day horse to one of your clients, or she is getting the dressage award that evening), then you have a nice starting point.
At a veterinary conference there is always a presentation that you attended or want to attend that would make a good topic of conversation.
And of course the best way to talk to strangers is to ask questions and listen attentively. Here are some basic sample questions you could include in your arsenal:
Where do you practice?
Where did you go to school?
With which types of horses do you generally work?
Keep in mind these are not really open-ended questions designed to get the other person rolling along so you don’t have to talk;,they are simply to break the ice. And if you ask these questions, be prepared to answer the same ones about yourself and your practice.
What has been one of the biggest problems in your area this year? Then follow up with: Why do you think that happened?
If the person said that West Nile virus was a big problem this year, you might learn that she thinks clients haven’t vaccinated like they should in the past few years, so she has been making a special effort to promote vaccination days at her clinic for haul-in clients. Or she has been staging the vaccination clinics at a convenient location around the community (fairgrounds, feed store, box store parking lot—of course, all with permission of the property owner).
What presentation have you found most applicable at the AAEP? Then, if necessary, follow up with: Why do you think that?
How do you handle…? (Fill in the blank with some problem that you face or in which you are interested, such as: How do you handle finding and keeping good help at the clinic? How do you handle clients who don’t pay on time? How do you handle your inventory?)
This is also where your preparation in step one comes in handy. You should be prepared to answer questions about yourself and your business when other people come up to talk to you. If you are at an industry event and have brochures or information about your practice, carry a few with you or get the person’s email address and send him or her the information within 24 hours.
Tip #4. Position Yourself With Strategy in Mind
“I’m supposed to pick out a spot to stand or sit ahead of time? Isn’t that a bit of overkill?” If you are serious about networking to help your business grow and be more profitable, this is one step in that business plan.
Position yourself near the door; that way you can see everyone who is coming and going. If there is someone you specifically want to meet or with whom you want to talk, being by the entrance will help ensure that you won’t miss that person! If it’s a large conference, such as the AAEP Convention, plan a meeting ahead of time at a convenient location.
Where you sit at a dinner or during a meeting also takes planning. Don’t just plop down with some friends. If you met someone that you think could be useful to you or your business or vice versa, ask whether you could sit with that person.
Otherwise, pick a table or row near the front of the room and facing the podium. The reason is that you not only can see and hear better (and without having to turn your chair if at a dinner), but the more involved people of the group tend to sit at the front tables.
Tip #5. Divide Your Time Wisely
You should divide your time at the meeting in order to spend about half with people you know and half with people you don’t know. If you tend to get rolling along while catching up with friends, time yourself. Often you’ll be talking, then it’s time for the meeting to start and you haven’t met anyone new.
It’s important to spend time with people you know and re-establish those bonds and friendships. It’s equally important to meet new people and start establishing new bonds and friendships.
The rule of meetings is that you should spend 50% of your time with people you know so you can solidify those relationships, and 50% with people you don’t know (or don’t know well) to become acquainted (or better acquainted). The goal of this is to solidify relationships that can help your business.
Keep in mind the old marketing rule: In good times people like to do business with people they know and respect; in bad times they only do business with people they know and respect.
Bonus Tip #6. Follow Up
This might be the most important part of the networking process. Within 24 hours of the meeting or event, follow up with people you met or with whom you talked at the event. You also should send emails or make calls to those people with whom you had wanted to talk, but couldn’t.
“That’s a lot of work!” you might think. “I run into hundreds of folks at the AAEP!”
Or maybe you think: “I don’t want to do that! What do I say?”
That’s why you had your notebook and pen (or smartphone). If you met Dr. Susie Smith and she is working on a committee about compounding and you are really interested in that problem in your area, send her an email and volunteer or ask how you can help. If you met Dr. Joe Johnson and he’s looking for a place to relocate, and you are looking for a new partner, then you have something to discuss. Or if you met Dr. Bill Brown who works for a pharmaceutical company, and you have a question about a product, then he would be a great resource.
Networking isn’t easy, but it can be profitable for you personally and professionally. Treat it like part of your job; then enjoy the fruits of your labor!