Our Guide to making sure your money is well spent.
Formal networking groups have become fashionable of late. There are now hundreds of paid networks for lawyers, accountants and other professionals that promise to help you grow your practice through better contacts, more extensive relationships and the work that will flow from them. But are they worth the time, effort and - above all - money? The short answer is, maybe.
But a better answer is that they will be if you choose the right group and you’re prepared to put in the time and effort needed to be fruits you hoped for. But how exactly do you do just that?
1. Choose a group with firms like yours
This is one of the most, if not the most, important step in making sure you get value from your networking group. You need to join a group with people who share a similar outlook and whose practices face similar problems. If you don’t, the whole process will be a waste of time. For instance, if your main problem is providing a seamless services across markets, there’s little point turning up to a group whose main priorities are to best service SMEs in the suburbs.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you run a small firm, it may be tempting to jump into a group with some of the big firms and big corporates. After all, won’t that elevate your practice and help you make the kind of contacts that will take your business into the big league too? I hate to break it to you, but no. It won’t. You’ll find you have nothing meaningful to contribute to the discussions and you’re unlikely to have worked referred to you either. You’re much better off looking for a group with firms servicing similar clients who can be confident in your capacity to look after them.
Another temptation may be to hedge your bets and join multiple groups. But I want to caution against spreading yourself too thin, as well. I’ve seen firms sign up to 10 or more networking groups and get nothing out of any of them because they don’t have the time to put a decent effort into any of them. (more on that below).
Instead, you’re always much better off focusing your efforts on just one or two that match your values, markets and philosophy and have firms that play in similar markets.
2. Turn up
80% of success is turning up, Woody Allen famously said. And that’s particularly true for networking groups. You’d be surprised just how little you’ll get out of something by not being there.
But, to me, turning up means more than just taking it in turns to go along and sip Peronis by the pool (although, as you’ll see later, I think there’s a place for that too). It means sending along multiple people from all different levels in the firm - with different outlooks and different experience - so that your chances of meeting people is multiplied. Remember, a senior partner who’s 60 is likely to make different friends and have different conversations to a 26 year old up and comer.
It means being generous with your ideas in any group discussions, not jealously guarding your information based on the fear that everyone is your rival.
And it means not sitting back and waiting for opportunities to come to you, but actually getting in there and meeting people and talking about what you do.
So go on, connect on LinkedIn with people you meet. Go visit them when you’re in their town. (I’d suggest popping into their office rather than inviting yourself to their home.) And generally take the time to socialise and get to know your network partners.
Now, remember what I said before… that’s exactly where those Peronis by the pool can come in very handy.
3. Measure your ROI
If you’re using your networking group as a business development tool, you should be making sure it’s actually serving its purpose. And that means analysing whether it’s bringing you any financial reward. To do this, you’ll need to measure inbound referral amounts - or the dollars you wouldn’t have received if you weren’t a member of the group.
This shouldn’t be limited to simply the direct money you’ve earned. It should also take into account second-degree work and even third- and fourth-degree work too. That means referrals from referrals, and referrals from referrals from referrals, and so on.
These things usually have a multiplier effect. When you do this you may find that the initial investment went a very, very long way.
Of course there's also outbound referral amounts and the clients you've managed to retain because of your network. That could well be your best ROI.
4. But look beyond the dollars
That said, you can’t measure the value of a networking group only in dollars. A firm has five types of capital - financial, relationships, brand, infrastructure, and employee - and your networking group could be growing any - or hopefully all - of these.
For instance, your networking group is growing your social if it gives your professionals a more worldly, outward-focused approach than they’d have from only listening to the people in your firm. It’s growing your brand capital if it’s establishing you as a go to firm in a particular niche or making the market know of your presence. It’s growing your relationship capital if it’s introducing you to new networks around the globe or cementing your existing ones. And it’s growing your employee capital if it’s helping your younger staff members understand you’re part of something bigger so they can see how you fit into the industry and where their career could take them.
It could be helping you build any one of these and, in doing so, contributing to your business success. So look beyond the numbers and analyse the big picture too.
5. Think long-term
Finally, and most importantly, you should see your membership of any networking group as a long-term play. You can’t really judge its worth in one year, or even a couple.
A good networking group should be a career-long bridge that serves you and your people and gives them a pool of contacts they can call on at any stage to ask any kind of curly question without feeling like a goose.
From a personal point of view, one of the best networking group I’ve ever been part of came from my time working at Arthur Andersen. The business no longer exists at all and all of us former employees are now scattered across the four parts of the globe. But if any of the people from my time there call - or if I call on them - we’ll always go out of our way for each other. It’s the perfect low maintenance/high trust networking relationship, and it should be exactly what you look for when you’re paying to join a networking group.
But you’ll only ever get there if you put into practice the first four steps I talked about and then give it time.