Get more from your networking
Mark Lee talks with Dave Clarke about the benefits of open rather than closed networking.
I recently attended Netski 2011, which involved a group of people who run business networks sharing a chalet in the French Alps and skiing in between the networking. While there I caught up with Dave Clarke, CEO of NRG Business Networks. I have long been an advocate of NRG network meetings for accountants who do not favour traditional breakfast groups, so I took the opportunity to get Dave to explain his approach in detail.
ML: How would you sum up your approach to business networking?
DC: NRG is focused on the idea of relationships first, business second. We also suggest: “Connect, collaborate and grow.”
ML: Makes sense to me - no one is going to recommend an accountant they don’t know, like and trust. You have to build relationships before you can seriously expect to generate work from networking activities. How did you get into NRG?
DC: I discovered formal, organised networking groups about eight years ago. Most organised networking fell into two camps, open or closed. Open networking was very often little more than putting people in a room and letting them get on with it.
ML: I recently heard this described as “school disco” style networking. Few people have positive memories of such occasions from their teenage years.
DC: That’s right. Many business people are uncomfortable with this and get little value. It’s also a huge misconception that networking is about swapping business cards and talking briefly about the service you offer. This alone will not generate long-term business success, particularly for those who operate service-based businesses.
ML: And accountants are certainly in that box. When someone thrusts a business card in my hand “just in case” I’m often attempted to ask, “Just in case of what?” No one refers work to a business card. I guess this is the reason why some breakfast groups only allow one representative of each type of business at their meetings.
DC: Indeed. I refer to these as closed groups that you can only join when an opening appears. The idea is that locking out your competitors means more business for you. This approach does work for some businesses I have met, but not for many more.
ML: I tend to think it’s ideally suited to small local businesses that provide goods or services to the public or to other small local businesses. And it does work for some accountants too – presumably those that fit this profile. What approach does NRG take?
DC: NRG is a membership organisation focused on ensuring businesses get value from networking. Members are mainly independent professionals. Many are directors and partners of established businesses and professional firms. They typically provide their services on a regional or national basis. They know their best business comes through word of mouth. NRG helps them do more of this by developing key relationships. Relationships with others like them who can connect them to the right people.
The NRG business networking model was developed following research in conjunction with the University of Bath. When someone joins NRG we review their networking objectives, their business niche and how they can communicate this more effectively. Our aim is to help them develop a networking strategy that achieves referrals in a structured way.
ML: Having attended a number of excellent NRG lunchtime meetings I know the answer to this one, but we should make it clear. Can more than one accountant join the same group?
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DC: Absolutely. There is no restriction on businesses or professionals in the same category. Collaboration is encouraged as the quickest and most profitable route to market.
ML: How often do NRG groups meet?
DC: There are over 20 NRG groups around the country and they all meet monthly and some meet over breakfast rather than lunch. Each monthly meeting is facilitated so members and guests get to share business, support and knowledge.
ML: Does this all work in practice?
DC: Last month I was at the NRG Metropolitan Group in London’s West End. Of the 40 members present eight were accountants of some description, all providing complementary services or working in different niches. The group has become an essential part of their business development activity on a monthly business. Three of those regularly attend other NRG groups too which their membership allows them to do.
ML: And what about work referrals?
DC: In a recent survey of NRG members the amount of new business generated per year through NRG was over £15,000 in their second year. Three of the eight Metropolitan Group accountants reported substantially higher figures, with one exceeding it by a factor of 10.
ML: Thanks Dave, where can someone get more information?
DC: The best starting point is the NRG-networks.com website, then come along and give it a try.