TOM: I have my own business which is an office supplies business called TLC and I am also regional leader for 4Networking covering more or less most of Yorkshire.
What lead me to TLC, I made a career move that went wrong. One Monday morning, having been on holiday I just threw the car keys at the boss, walked out and had quite a peaceful journey home on the bus until I got home.
Then Sandra, my wife, sort of broke the peace, shall we say! However, I had a really good friend who said if you can do it for them, you can do it for yourself, I have a spare office, get on with it. And that really was the start of it, that was 1990 and so it has gone on.
PBI: How did you got started in business networking and eventually 4Networking?
TOM: How I had got into 4N, I had been in BNI, I left BNI and was looking for something else to do and I saw an advert for 4N. They weren’t in Yorkshire, they were ready to come into Yorkshire and Terry Cooper, one of the directors there said to me; “If you want it in Yorkshire we are ready to support you, get on with it.” So we launched one group in Yorkshire, then a second and so it just grew and there’s now thirty odd groups in Yorkshire now.
PBI: A lot of people think networking with other businesses outside of their own industry is of little importance. What are your thoughts on this perception?
TOM: It’s a mistake, one doesn’t know what opportunities are out there if you’re so closed that you don’t see outside your industry. There could be people that are not in your industry who you could be working with to help grow your business, there could be people outside of your industry that can help you to do your job better.
So there are all sorts of other options, other than looking at your own industry that’s not necessarily the way to go forward. It helps to broaden your horizons, it helps to broaden your scope.
PBI: For people thinking of joining networking groups, is it really possible for them to cultivate relationships outside of the group, if no, why not, and if yes, how?
TOM: Networking is – I always say to people it is ‘net’ space ‘working’ and you have to work at the networking that you’re in, which ever that is. If you just go to a group and leave it at that then, the chances are that it may help your business but it’s not going to help it to grow.
I think it’s important that you network outside of the group because it helps to build the relationship with the person you have met originally. So you meet somebody, there is a bit of rapport, you get on with them quite well, why not give them a coffee.
“I’m passing, do you fancy a coffee?”
Either meet them for a coffee or call at their work, have a coffee with them, bring some biscuits and if you can bring them a lead or something to help them with their business as well. So it’s all about helping to grow their business and in return they will help you.
PBI: What’s one of the most common mistakes you see people making in networking groups?
TOM: They fall into that trap – they fall into the sales trap, they’re there to sell their business, they’re not there to build a network of people and to help others but within the same industry you are in a little niche where everyone knows everybody else or knows what they are on about.
You don’t know what Ted’s brother does, you don’t know what Sonia’s sister does and you don’t know what the people in that room do and who they are related to.
So if you dismiss them you are dismissing an awful lot of people who could be beneficial to your business and it’s very important not just to see people with pound (£) signs over their heads or thinking ‘that’s the business I want to be in’ so that’s who I have to talk to. You have to be a lot more general, otherwise you are missing things as you go along.
When I joined 4N I had been in business about 18 or 19 years and I have learnt an awful lot from other people – tips to help me with my business and help me to grow my business. And I am constantly learning from other people and they are not always, in fact very seldom in the same industry and those tips can be anything from; picking up hints on SEO or how to blog better and all this sort of stuff that’s all key to marketing your business and you are learning from people all the time.
PBI: Can you share an example of falling into the sales trap you mentioned?
TOM: I went to a 4N meeting and there was a multi-level marketer there that I just wasn’t interested in at all.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I heard he had 3 million pound plus turnover companies that he owned – this MLM business was just a hobby to him that he was taking to the network to grow this side of it.
I could have been selling office supplies to all 3 of his companies but I had blown it just because I saw him for his face value, because I didn’t take the time to get to know him.
PBI: In spite of someone being new to a business networking group, how can they still be able to make strong connections with long standing members of the group?
TOM: You have got to take time, the long standing members have seen it all before and can be a little ‘dismissive’ I suppose is the right word. In that they don’t know who you are, or what you are about or anything about you.
So take the time to go and have a coffee with them and if possible find them a contact or a lead or a possible supplier that they could use, that could be useful to them.
When you go for a coffee, as well as taking the biscuits – which is always a good thing to do, take them this contact because it may help their business and when they say, “Thank you very much,” you just say, “Well it’s just what you would do for me.” It creates a bit of reciprocal, it lifts you up a peg with the members and he will tell others that you’re actually a good egg and that you are bringing business into the network.
You wouldn’t go into the pub and try to sell your stuff to the guys in the pub, so why do it at a network meeting? Just because it is business, you just don’t do it. It’s about getting to know people and building those relationships and then you create conditions where people then come to you to start to buy stuff.
PBI: With reference to the previous question of a new group member being able to make strong connections with more senior members of the group, what kind of personality traits does someone need to do this?
TOM: I think the biggest trait is about being yourself really.
If you have been involved in corporate, you have this suit and briefcase and you go along with the way everybody else is and you try to be perhaps somebody that you’re not because that’s what’s accepted.
It’s about being yourself and being open and honest with people and then they will be open and honest with you. If you come along and you are something that you’re not, people see through it, they’re not stupid, they see through it, they see what you are trying to do and it’s just all wrong.
Just be who you are, if your just starting out in business you just say; “I’m starting out in business, this is what I am doing,” and just lay your cards on the table, don’t be trying to say; I’m this and I’m that and I’m Mr Big’ and what have you, because folk just see right through it.
So I think that’s the biggest thing and treat people with respect, if you ask for help people will generally give you that help. But if you’re trying to pretend to be something you’re not, then they are just going to pull down the shutters and just don’t want to know you.
PBI: What’s the worst thing someone could say when meeting people at a networking meeting for the first time, and how can that affect their chances of becoming a successful networker?
TOM: Buy my stuff, or the guy that says, “Do you want a quote?” They are out there in the network, “Buy my stuff, buy my stuff, and buy my stuff!”
You know there is nothing more off putting to anybody than being sold too or sold at. It’s about building relationships, it comes back to what I said about going into the pub; you wouldn’t walk into the pub and say ‘buy my stuff’ why do it there?
Get to know people, find out if there is a real need.
An example I had from just last week, was from another network, not 4N.
This woman saw my details and sent me a message to say it would be great if we could have a coffee and get to know each other, well that’s awesome, that’s a good start… and then proceeded to sell to me in the message.
Well I’m sorry I don’t have a need for her stuff. Why use up a full A4 page of selling me when I can’t even use her services?
PBI: So it’s almost like they are showing a lack of respect?
TOM: It’s maybe not even a lack of respect, it’s maybe just a naivety and their enthusiasm coming through for what they do. Just chill, just back off a little, get to know people and let them come to you.
You are spending money going to a network, you are wanting to see a return on that money, but it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s about building relationships and gradually that will start to pay off, it just takes time.
PBI: Can you give an example of how someone can be nervous during one on one meetings and still walk away looking and feeling like a professional networker?
TOM: A very good book by Dale Carnegie, ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People,’ that talks and gives you lots of help to be able to converse with somebody.
And that’s what you are having, a conversation. The best people at conversations are those who ask questions, so questions are great, so if you are new to networking and you are very nervous and you’re in a one-to-one situation just ask loads of questions of the person you are speaking to.
Don’t tell them anything about your business, perhaps if they ask you, you could answer the question but keep just asking them questions all the time. And you will find that they respond and you will get a really good conversation from that, just by asking questions.
PBI: What are some other beliefs/actions that are supposed to get you lots of new clients from networking meetings, but can actually hurt your chances of success?
TOM: That’s a really good question and you know again it sort of comes back to the don’t sell, you go to a network and you think you have got to sell yourself, you have to sell everything and yes there are opportunities to say what it is you do, either in a forty or sixty seconds or whatever it is, that’s fine but then stop at that, don’t become a bore.
I know a guy who was in the network who whenever a new visitor came in, he pounced on them – ‘I will do you a quote, I will do you a quote, I will do you a quote,’ and he just a pain in the arse.
All it does is make people back off, so it comes back to this selling, that’s the biggest thing.
You go along to a networking meeting thinking you are going to be selling – don’t sell, be yourself and people will think you are a really nice person.
Go and have a coffee with them and they will get to know you a bit more and you build the relationship. People buy from people, they don’t buy off other businesses – it’s about the person! If you get on well with somebody and you have made an effort to help them, they will reciprocate.
TOM: Don’t put a pound sign (£) on any bodies head, treat everyone the same – with respect, don’t put anybody down, don’t put anybody on a pedestal, just treat them all the same, with the same amount of respect and the same way.
That way you won’t appear to be hunting for the sale and you won’t be disrespectful to anybody along the way. Keep in mind, you simply don’t know anything about that person you’re talking to, and who their contacts are.
The guy who lays the carpets who is in the network, whilst he may not appear to be the contact that you want, his girlfriend or partner could be the person you want to be seeing, you just don’t know that. It could be the best contact you have ever had but you don’t know unless you treat people the same.
PBI: Thanks Tom, this has been a great interview. To wrap this up, what is the one thing that someone must consider to successfully grow their network of business contacts?
TOM: I hope that people get out there and network, there are millions of businesses who aren’t networking and should be and it would be a great shame if they didn’t go and test it out and see – get outside their comfort zone.
It’s important to grow and the network can help you to grow, not as a business but as a person and that’s an important aspect that you get from networking as well.
PBI: Thanks again Tom, you shared a lot of valuable information today. Where can people find out more about you?
TOM: They can Google ‘Tom Lawrence CNN’ or ‘Tom Lawrence 4N, Tom Lawrence TLC Office Supplies. Alternatively, they can go directly to www.TLCsupplies.co.uk. They’ll find contact details on there that they can use to get in touch, that’s probably the best way.