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Networking is the first step to forming a real, human relationship with someone...

I was recently invited to speak at a law firm gathering about networking and business development best practices. To begin, I stood in front of a roomful of 50 attorneys and posed a simple question: What's your best way to network at conferences?

The question was met with deafening silence. 

Eventually, one brave soul raised her hand. Crisis averted. This female partner, whom I knew was well respected in the group, would surely have some wisdom to share with us.

She said, “I walk up to someone I don’t know and tell them my name and that I am a partner at our firm. I mention what type of law I practice, then I hand them my business card, and firmly shake their hand before moving on.” She glanced around briefly for reassurance, received more than just a few supportive nods, and returned to her seat.

True story. And I don't need to tell you that this strategy was decidedly… not at all strategic. 

There was no mention of any preparatory work to find out who would be in the room, what she might have in common with those very people, how she could use her expertise to facilitate conversations with others whose industry she innately understood and had decidedly smart commentary to contribute. Her “strategy” was essentially a templated and impersonal introduction, and there was no mention of listening to the other person or engaging in an actual conversation. Which, frankly, is where you should begin. 

Even worse: the other attorneys in the room seemed to agree with this approach.

As I mentioned in my last post, it is imperative to focus on creating meaningful connections when meeting prospective clients and referral sources. Networking is not a transaction, nor is it a systematic competition to see who collects the most business cards. It is the first step to forming a real, human relationship with someone; that someone may (or may not) end up being a client or a referral source, but you won’t have a chance to find out if you don’t make a concerted effort to customize the experience.

Here are four tips to help you use LinkedIn Sales Navigator to strategically prepare for your next conference or networking event.

1. Show Them You Know Them: Saved Searches

Anyone who knows me knows that I should have the tattoo SMYKM (or "Show Me You Know Me") somewhere on me, because it is that important to the core of my belief system for networking and sales. 

As a registrant for a conference or event, you often have access to the registration list. If so, you’ve struck Navigator gold! Take a quick look at the list and try to find a handful of key clients, decision makers, or others who strike your fancy and create a saved search in Navigator to keep them neatly organized and at your fingertips. 

You can easily set an alert to find out what they (and their associated companies) are posting about on LinkedIn, when they are mentioned in the media, and if they have recently made a jump to a new role or a new company. Take note of any commonalities in topics you could start a conversation about: a hot-button issue in your industry, a shared college team to root for (Go Noles!), or a recent article you read mentioning them. 

The emphasis should be more on showing that you made an effort to learn something about them and retained that information, and less on what the “right” move is.

2. Should Old Acquaintance(s) Be Forgot: Alumni Filters

Beyond the clients and prospects you flag on the list and add to your saved search, turn on the alumni filter in Navigator to find former colleagues in the mix. Whether from your current or former firm, those with whom you have tangentially worked in the past are an easy target to seek out in a room full of strangers. 

They may have made a move to an in-house position at a potential client or could be at a competitor firm that handles similar work to yours, therefore occasionally facing conflicts on matters you could handle. A semi-familiar face in the crowd is (almost) always nice to come across and may be even more willing to connect you to others in the room whom you want to meet. 

Do the same for them; pay the connections forward by inquiring about their networking strategy and make introductions for them when possible.

3. On the Road Again: Geo Filters

It’s more than likely that many of the conference attendees are there from out of town; use the geofilter on your saved search in Navigator to find a subset of the audience who has a geographic similarity to you. 

If not a friend for the plane ride home, you may find someone with whom to share stories about one of your old stomping grounds. 

Alternately, you may find that a few of the attendees reside in a city you will be visiting shortly to take depositions in or for trial, and the conversation could turn to restaurant recommendations and top-secret locals’ tips for exploring during your upcoming visit. Most people light up when asked to give advice on their city, which makes for a meaningful connection and a reason to follow up after the initial meeting. 

I have reached out to many people I’ve met at networking events who gave me wonderful advice when traveling to a new place.

4. Team Work Makes the Dream Work: TeamLink Extend

Pull from the intel of your colleagues’ connections by employing the TeamLink Extend feature in Navigator. 

Not only does TeamLink show you who within your firm knows the attendees in your saved search, but it promises to have the most up-to-date information on their current position. 

Unlike a traditional CRM, which requires manual updating, TeamLink updates everyone within the firm as soon as the individual’s LinkedIn profile is updated. If you were preparing for your event without this intel, you might not see that one of the attendees recently made a jump to your top prospect’s company, or that your work neighbor’s law school buddy just made a big move to become general counsel at one of your key clients. This second-degree data, and the time with which to find out more nuggets of personal information before descending on the conference, can be invaluable in strategizing for your upcoming networking experience.

What are some other tips and tricks you use when preparing for an upcoming event? What makes connecting with new people less unnerving for you? Please share your ideas with me, and I will include the most unique approaches in my next post.

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[Samantha McKenna is Head of Sales, Enterprise, NYC at LinkedIn. Follow her for her latest writings on law firm BD on JD Supra. Connect with Sam on LinkedIn to see how Navigator can transform your firm's growth efforts.

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