But I don’t need a bicycle (aka “how not to network”)

But I don’t need a bicycle (aka “how not to network”)

In the Marketing without Social Media Masterclass last week I discussed 10 alternatives to using social media to get clients and grow your business.

I always maintain that one of the most effective way to get new clients from a standing start is to network face to face, either online or offline. (I actually prefer to call this “talking to people” – it feels less self-serving).

It’s a brilliant way to generate new clients, referrals and other opportunities much quicker than typically happens through more “broadcast” styles of marketing.

However it’s also very easy to get it wrong…

Today’s blog was inspired by attending a networking event where I got chatting to a book coach, and how the interaction left me feeling (annoyed to say the least!).

At the time I didn’t want to identify the lady concerned, so I turned it into an analogy to help you see how this sort of approach can feel – so you can avoid doing it yourself.

Imagine I’ve gone along to a local village networking event made up of local shops, tradespeople and business people.

I feel a little awkward at first as I don’t know anyone there, but after a while of milling around I get into conversation with someone new – it turns out that her business is selling bicycles (I’ll call her the “bicycle lady”).

How not to network

The conversation went something like this:

Me:  “Hello, what do you do?”

BL:    “I sell bicycles”

Me:  (being polite and making conversation)  “Oh, that’s interesting my friend owns a bicycle – she rides it to work and to yoga every day.  In fact I think she might have bought it from you.”

BL:   (completely ignoring my conversation opener)  “Are you interested in buying a bicycle?”

Me:  “Oh no, I don’t want to buy a bicycle myself”

BL:  “Oh, you really should – they are so good for the environment and such good fun – plus of course cycling will help to keep you fit”

Me:  “I don’t really need a bicycle right now – I live really close to the town centre so I just walk everywhere, and if I need to go anywhere further afield I’ve got a car.  But I do like them and I can see how useful they are for some people.”

BL:  “If you did buy a bicycle what sort would you get?”

Me:  (starting to feel a bit irritated now) “I haven’t thought about that because I don’t want a bicycle” (then, not wanting to appear rude I add) “but that doesn’t mean I’ll never get one.  I’ve had one in the past and I could imagine a time in the future when I have one again – I think if I moved somewhere more rural in the future it would be nice to have one”

BL:  “If you did get a bicycle how do you think that might change your life?”

Me:   Silence.  As my brain cogs whirr and I try to think of what I can say next to extricate myself from this very one-way conversation.

Finally:  “Oh, is that Sally over there?  I need to speak to her about something.  It was lovely meeting you, goodbye”

So what went wrong?

On the surface you might think that the Bicycle Lady was doing a lot right.   She is guiding the conversation and asking questions to open up the conversation in the direction of her product.  And asking questions designed to get my creative juices flowing about just how much better my life could be if I had one. This is all good stuff and in fact it is quite possible she learned to do this on a traditional sales course focused on how to turn a “prospect” into a “lead” at a networking event.

But here’s the problem:

She wasn’t dealing with a “prospect”.   She was dealing with a human being – me!

And I didn’t feel listened to.

I didn’t feel respected.

And I didn’t feel as if I mattered to her at all outside of the context of whether or not I might be in the market for a bicycle.

(To her credit at least she didn’t start telling me all the terrible things that might befall me if I don’t get a bicycle – like being cornered by a pack of wolves on a dark lane and be unable to get away fast enough – this type of fear based selling I object to the most).

Now of course I want to be clear –  when we go networking (aka “talking to people”) we do it because we are hoping to build and develop relationships that are going to grow our business  – whether that is finding new clients, referral partners or speaking opportunities and it is important to stay focused on that end purpose.

And so technically speaking everyone we meet is a potential “prospect” in the traditional sense.

The problem is that nobody likes to be made to feel like a prospect.   What we want and crave most is to create genuine, meaningful connections with people we like and who we feel like us.

That line is really important.   So let me repeat it:

What we want and crave most is to create genuine, meaningful connections with people we like and who we feel like us.

And your prospective clients want the same.

When you fail to do that while networking you lose the potential for future business.

Because just like me, your clients will want to get away from you – and quick.

And you will lose out on business – just like the bicycle lady did.

You see, while I don’t want or need a bicycle myself, I know lots of people who do.

And as it happens, the very next day I found myself sitting next to another bicycle lady at a lunch.  This time she totally “got” that I didn’t need a bicycle and acknowledged that they are not right for everyone.   And then we got chatting about bicycles anyway.  The connection felt genuine and the conversation flowed naturally and we had a giggle over some old cycling stories. The end result?  I told her that several of my clients are looking for bicycles and we arranged for me to introduce her to them.

The moral of the story:
When networking (or in any area of sales) never forget that the person in front of you is a human being first and a “prospect” only second .   The future of your business lies in your ability to create genuine and meaningful connections with people who believe you are interested in them well beyond just whether they are likely to pay you money right now.

Of course you still need to know how to communicate what you do in a way that makes you stand out from the crowd and piques the interest of your ideal client, and you still need to know how to guide an interested person into a sales conversation that will end with them saying a resounding “Yes Please!” to working with you.

Just don’t forget to treat them like a human being along the way.

I’d love for you to share your experiences of networking in the comments below!

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Please leave a comment as I would love to hear your thoughts


  1. Jack Chapman on March 8, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Great post Catherine, I can resonate with some of these types of people at “Talking To People” events
    It’s good to be aware of the different situations that one can get into.
    I don’t like the person that takes up all your time thinking that you will stay and talk to them the whole time not really moving around themselves.
    Myself I tend to be a person that brings people together ie – I know a person who can help you….

  2. Hazel on February 24, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Great article Catherine, I am going to share this but what I’d really love to do is print it out and give it to those ‘Bulls and Scanners’ to read so that I will never have a business card ‘thrust’ into my face again or waste my precious time trying to be polite to someone who is looking over my shoulder for the better offer!

    • Catherine on February 24, 2016 at 11:56 am

      Hi Hazel, it’s lovely to hear from you 🙂 And thanks for the comment – maybe i need to publish a mini-guide to “bulls & scanners” that you can hand out instead of business cards… Hm, now there’s an idea!!

  3. Philippa on February 23, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you Catherine, it happens all the time and from those who ought to know better, meaning they have been around a lot longer than (me) you and I am still fairly new at talking to people. It is not a great feeling being scanned but I am learning to escape the scanners and similar as I enter the room.
    I think the ‘bulls and scanners’ might benefit from some education about network etiquette because no one has been brave enough to point out their rudeness

    • Catherine on February 23, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      Hi Philippa. “Bulls & Scanners” I love it! I think I’m going to have to adopt those words into my regular business vocabulary! Some people do it because they are nervous and/or don’t know better. But a lot of people are simply too focused on what they can get and not enough on what they can give and maybe we can’t change them, but we can avoid them and seek out people more aligned with our values.

  4. Wendy Capewell on February 22, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    I love this Catherine! My experience recently was whilst at a networking meeting, happily chatting to someone, another person joined us – great, always happy to chat to more people! Its seems they knew each other, so the interloper handed me her card and then proceeded to talk to the other person, completely excluding me from the conversation. Guess what I did with her card? I made my escape quite quickly.

    • Catherine on February 22, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      Hi Wendy, I’m glad you love it! And thanks for your comment, it’s always lovely to hear from you. From all the various comments this post has prompted it is clear that a lot of business owners are in desparate need of some help and support when it comes to how to network effectively – I just wonder whether some of the more “bull in a china shop” types would even be open to learning how to do things differently…

  5. Joanna Gaudoin on February 19, 2016 at 8:57 am

    Great post Catherine, we all see so much of this. Listening to others is so vital for genuine connection.

    • Catherine on February 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

      Hi Joanna. Yes exactly, it’s not that the sales teachings so many people follow are “wrong” it’s just that if they are done without listening and genuine connection they just don’t work. So glad you liked it!

  6. fiona heart on February 19, 2016 at 4:00 am

    hi Catherine, thanks for a great article. I am not a pushy sales person but I am passionate about what I do so when I see I can help I tend to go in to coaching mode because I want to help so badly to help people. Your article is a great reminder to sit back, listen and let your tribe come to you! Thank you

    • Catherine on February 19, 2016 at 8:27 am

      You are welcome Fiona! And that’s exactly the issue – often this “not listening” approach stems from our passion and a true desire to help (and I’ve been guilty of it too!). But if the person isn’t asking for coaching or advice it can feel overbearing to them. A softly softly approach is usually better. And if you want to coach the person just ask them first “do you mind if I ask you some questions about that?”. If the “bicycle lady” had asked my permission first it wouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable – and we might still be chatting!

  7. Helen Elizabeth Evans on February 19, 2016 at 2:35 am

    Gosh, I am sure I’ve been the bicycle lady and transmitter on many occasions. Hopefully I do better now!
    One thing I struggle with at these ‘talking’ events are the scanners. Half an ear to your conversation and half an ear plus two eyes on the look out for someone who’d be more useful to them. I’ve learned that the question that first goes through many people’s minds when networking is “Do I need to know this person?” If you’ve not said anything for them to answer “Yes” to that question in the first few minutes then they’re looking elsewhere fast… not great for those whose conversation style is more of a slow burn…

    • Catherine on February 19, 2016 at 8:25 am

      Ooh, great point Helen, yes I agree about the scanners – I remember a number of years ago when I was very new to business being “scanned over”. The lady left me with the clear message that I was the least significant person in the room and I felt so deflated that I lost confidence in networking for a while. I should write a post about how to deal with them (because it’s not “you” it’s “them” and these are not the type of people most of us want to do business with anyway).

  8. Ally on February 18, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Hi Catherine, great post. This resonates with me.

    I remember an occasion a few months ago, I met a lady at a networking event who lunged at me to speak as I got into her eye shot. Straight away she talked at me and said she had been looking for a job for 2 years but no one hired her and she was looking for a sales job. Demanding straight away that I give her a card. I politely told her I didn’t have any vacancies and jokingly said “don’t write to me asking for a job…. She obviously completely ignored my request and subsequently sent me the next day her Cv and covering letter stating that she trusts that I will “do the needful”…. ;0)… so I did and pressed the delete button!

    • Catherine on February 19, 2016 at 8:29 am

      Glad it resonated Ally, and thank you for sharing your experience. Often people are just unaware of how they come across – and we are all guilty of it from time to time. Sounds like she needed sales “training” before the sales “job”.

  9. Helen Reynolds on February 18, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    I love this post Catherine. I think we’ve all met the bicycle lady in one form or another! I had another kind of networker last week. A transmitter. Ever had one of those? Didn’t pause for breath. I ended up asking for her card just to stop the flow and escape! Guess what happened to the card?

    • Catherine on February 18, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      Ha! The Transmitter – I love it! I’ve definitely met her too – she’s had me squashed into a corner on more than one occasion 🙂

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