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Networking tips to expand your Brussels contacts book
Benjamin Crollen, a Brussels-based accountant, never really set out to gain new clients through his running club. He never handed out business cards; he never touted his services in between laps round the tree-lined track. He already racked up more than enough billable hours, splitting his time between working for an Antwerp-based cooperative company and a Brussels non-profit.
“Networking was never really a must; it was more like seeing where things would go and if this was something I could help people with,” he says, looking back. Today he helps four members of the track club – a career coach, a lawyer, a design engineer and a journalist. All his other freelance clients have also come to him through personal acquaintances. Even though Crollen says he never aimed to court prospective clients, he unwittingly built up a network of clients just by being himself, he says. “By being polite and friendly, you inspire trust and come across as approachable, and I think that’s perhaps the strategy to go with,” he says.
I hired Crollen in 2017, after he answered several accounting questions over a cup of coffee and later sent me a follow-up email with two invoicing simulations and their related benefits. In doing so, he showed more interest in helping me reduce my tax bill than my former accountant had in the space of two years. It made me feel like my situation was important enough for him to spend time on, even though I wasn’t a client of his.
Agnes Uhereczky, a Brussels-based work-life consultant, says that networking, when done well, doesn’t feel like courtship or self-promotion. Instead, it feels like what Crollen did – someone taking an interest in the problems that are giving you a headache. “It’s about asking a lot of questions and showing a genuine interest in the other person. Don’t even try to put yourself forward; just try to find out as much as you can about the other person and their challenges and highs and lows,” she says, pointing out this will also give the selling party invaluable information about the potential market for their service or product. “Put the other person in a position where they’ll really remember you, because they gave you a tip, or you gave them good advice,” she says.
This is known as the ‘jab, jab, jab, right hook’ business philosophy, developed by entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk in his bestselling book of the same name. Using a boxing analogy, Vaynerchuk advises companies to give clients or customers a lot of value or free content – the jabs – and only then to sell them something or ask them to subscribe to your product – the right hook.
There are two takeaways from Vaynerchuk’s book, Uhereczky says: remember that networking is not about you, and do not expect instant wins. “Networking is really about solving problems and being attentive to the other person,” she says. “And this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. You need to invest in these relationships and then maybe it will return a yield in a month, a year or even two years.”
This is echoed by Crollen, who says a lot of his freelance clients, while not opposed to hiring an accountant, don’t want to shell out money on an impersonal, overpriced accountant. “They don’t want to have this feeling of: ‘All I did was make a phone call; the guy made a listing and I get a €120 invoice barely the next day,” he says. “So if I could give a piece of advice to people who are starting out, it would be to show that you’re not primarily interested in the other person’s wallet. Do something unpaid,” he says, adding that the best kind of advertising is still word-of-mouth from satisfied clients.
Tips for reluctant networkers
- Don’t wait around. What makes networking such a powerful tool to grow a business and land new contracts or clients is that it’s entirely in your hands, Uhereczky says. “Don’t wait for others to create opportunities for you when you can network,” she says.
- Play a different tape in your head and tap into the power of positive visualisation if you must. “You need to overcome this story you are telling yourself – that networking is horrible and that you’re not good at it. You need to get in front of people with your product, with your service, with your solution, one way or other,” Uhereczky says. “Just tell yourself another story – that you love networking and that you’re really good at it, and then fake it until you make it.”
- Don’t think of networking as selling yourself. Instead, try to be a good dinner party guest. “Go into it from a viewpoint of learning, listening and asking a lot of questions. If you’re showing this true interest in people, they will become interested in you. And this will also make networking much easier for you,” Uhereczky says.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2018