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Getting Strategic About Building Your Network

By AICC Staff

September 13, 2023

A conversation with sales experts Ed Wallace and Mark Roberts

As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” So, salespeople and others have set out to build their networks, but the questions become, how strategic are those networks? How can salespeople strategically build relationships in today’s sales environment?

BoxScore aims to answer those questions by connecting with Ed Wallace, thought leader, relationship skills trainer, and author of Business Relationships That Last, and Mark Roberts, sales effectiveness consultant, coach, trainer, and author of the newly released book Driving Explosive Growth.

BoxScore: Ed and Mark, what are you seeing post-pandemic? Are people returning to sales kickoff meetings, conferences, and trade events, or are they finding what they want and need virtually?

Wallace: In our practice, we are seeing more live conference workshops and trainings than we experienced pre-​
pandemic. As we engage with trainees,
we often hear how excited they are to meet with their contacts and prospects face to face again.

Roberts: Like Ed noted, we are seeing more national sales meetings and sales kickoff meetings. Some teams have not all been in one room for over three years. When teams invest in these events, we often encourage and facilitate team-
​building exercises because in most cases, there are many new faces and people in new roles. AICC and other associations are experiencing record attendance.

BoxScore: Why do you think we are seeing such high numbers in attendance for AICC conferences, trade events, and sales kickoff meetings? 

Wallace: I believe many teams adapted to virtual selling, Teams meetings, and Zoom, but they missed the face-to-face interaction. Yes, you can have a phone call with an industry contact or a Zoom call, but it is not the same as sharing a coffee after an engaging workshop at an event.

Roberts: In our training, we discuss how we use terms like B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer), but really, we are in the H2H business—human to human. People still buy from people, and it is harder than ever to engage with prospects who do not know you. That is where your network comes in. For example, over 85% of my practice’s revenue is from referrals. It is critical we build strategic networks today.

BoxScore: What goes into preparing for an association meeting, trade show, or even a smaller event?

Wallace: We recommend you and your team have a specific goal and objective when attending any association meeting or trade event. Who do you know will be attending, and how can you build your relationship with them? Who are those attending you would like to meet, and what is your plan to move from a stranger to an acquaintance? How will you move from an acquaintance to a peer they turn to for help solving their business challenges?

Roberts: Like Ed, I believe we should have a plan and ideally a return on investment from attending an event. Your goal may be building 25 new contacts with market-leading prospects, building relationships with some of your key contacts, attending conference training, and learning new trends and challenges your customers face. I encourage salespeople to attend panel discussions and listen to some of the current and urgent problems industry leaders share. If you have a booth or your team is delivering an event, you must invite attendees who match your ideal customer profiles and key persona influencers.

BoxScore: How do you “work the floor” and get the right leads?

Wallace: We train teams to have a show plan and meetings booked well in advance of the conference. Tune up your value proposition based on the current challenges your customers face, and practice it with your peers prior to the event. After you book your key meetings, map your game plan of who you want to meet and what that exchange will look like. We encourage salespeople to do their homework. For example, let’s say you wanted to meet Mark at the next AICC meeting. Our training teaches you to do some research on Mark, understand his role and new trends that could be impacting his business. You would find he just launched a book. We train salespeople how to develop strong discovery questions to start conversations that turn into meetings after the show.

Roberts: Working the floor, as people call it, is fun if you do it correctly. Do your research on each company and key contact you wish to meet well in advance of the show. As Ed shared, we encourage salespeople to build strong discovery questions that quickly build trust and demonstrate competence. Your goal at a show is not to “make a sale” but to build a relationship. The more authentic you are and the more you understand the other person’s challenges, the better the future result. We encourage leaders to volunteer to deliver thought-leading presentations and participate in panel discussions to be seen as thought leaders in their industries.

BoxScore: What happens after an event? How do you go about following up and staying in touch?

Wallace: We encourage salespeople to follow up quickly and mention comments from your introductory conversations. We teach sales teams to ask, ask, ask, ask, then tell. This method of asking great questions and then sharing how you help others like them in the form of a memorable story is powerful.

Roberts: We train salespeople to send LinkedIn connection invites within 24 hours of conversations with new contacts. As Ed shared, mention something from the conference and ideally something from your introductory conversation. You are starting a conversation, not closing a sale. We encourage sharing possible solutions to challenges the contact may have shared. If you both attended a workshop on delivering price increases that stick, for example, you might send them a thought-leading article or white paper on how to strategically raise prices while building business relationships.

BoxScore: Any other advice as more and more business leaders are attending events?

Wallace: In my book Business Relationships That Last, I share what we refer to as the relationship ladder. You can be a stranger, an acquaintance, a peer, and earn the respected advisor status. We encourage salespeople to rank their relationships with key contacts on the ladder and have a plan to advance the relationship up the ladder. We have tools and templates we share in our training to help salespeople map this strategic relationship-building process. Be prepared to share the problems you solve for each of the decision-maker personas you meet at the event. For example, what is important to a sales vice president is often different than a discussion with a vice president of engineering. We teach teams to identify their top three to five personas and be prepared to share how you help others like them.

Roberts: Don’t forget about who brought you to the dance! We often see salespeople so focused on building and winning new customers, but the quickest and most profitable return on your time is building relationships with your current accounts. You know those customers who have been with you for years and actually pay the bills. What current customers will you meet with? Who will you ask your current contacts to invite to a lunch, dinner, or meeting to expand your relationship network at your key accounts? Today, key buying decisions often include more than six decision-makers. The burden is on sales to determine who those decision-makers are and strategically build what we refer to as your emotional bank account long before you need that relationship.

One last thought: We teach to not ask any questions you could have answered by a Google or LinkedIn search. Preparation and taking a genuine interest in others and their business are key; strangers can smell commission breath from a mile away at events.

As more and more associations’ conferences occur and have record attendance, they become key opportunities to start building strategic relationships while also moving your current relationships up the ladder. Nothing happens if you just show up, throw up, and wander around the event. Pre-event planning is key to turning a conference into relationships that lead to greater revenues.

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