Your neighbor invites you over for a swim party. You arrive — in your most unflattering bathing suit, with a beach ball in one hand and a beer in another. Then you discover your neighbor's cousin is the purchasing manager for the largest company in town. They buy widgets; you sell widgets. What do you do now?
Another time, an important client invites you and your family to a barbecue. You realize there are likely to be other prospective business contacts there, and this could be an important time to meet people. Do you bring business cards with you? How do you politely hand them out? And do you bring your kids, who've been acting up all morning?
Summer presents many sticky situations for entrepreneurs. Many of them involve an uncomfortable mixture of barbecue sauce and business. Here's how to gracefully network at an informal social event:
•Be sociable. Remember, it's a social event. People don't come to barbecues or pool parties to conduct business, and they're not in the same frame of mind they would be in at an industry event. So you need to approach every meeting with a person, no matter how important they are to you, first from a social angle. Don't rush into discussing business.
•Make small talk. If you identify a potential business contact at a social event, engage them in conversation that has nothing to do with business. Easy ice-breaking topics include sports, summer blockbuster movies ("Have you seen the new Indiana Jones yet?"), vacations, even the weather. Look for something you have in common to establish rapport. Do you both love or hate the Yankees? Have kids the same age? Enjoy gourmet cooking? Begin to build a social relationship — that will take you a lot farther than jumping on them with business topics.
•Mingle. Found the perfect person who could help your business? Great. Spend some time with them, establish a relationship, perhaps sit with them over lunch. But be sure to mix with others. Don't monopolize someone's entire time, or you'll seem like a pest and overeager.
•Leave — or bring — the spouse and kids. If it's primarily a social event with people you know well, and there's just the chance you'll meet someone important, relax and bring the family. But if you know it's mostly going to be business acquaintances, have your sister take the kids to the water park for the afternoon. After all, you don't want them pestering you to leave just when you've started talking to an important potential client. And prepare your spouse or partner. If he or she will have to mingle on their own while you're working the room (or, rather, the poolside), make sure they understand that ahead of time.
•Bring business cards, but don't hand them out too fast. No matter how informal the event, ALWAYS carry business cards in your wallet or purse — even if you leave them in the other room while you stand around the pool in your sundress or Hawaiian shirt. At a social event, only give someone a card when asked for it or before you leave the party. After you've been talking with someone for a while, it's perfectly appropriate to say, "Do you have a business card with you? I've got my business card in the other room, I'll get it for you."
•Arrange to follow up. Once you've established rapport with a business prospect, it may be comfortable to discuss a modest amount of business with them. After all, they're going to ask you what you do, and you'll have your elevator pitch handy — a quick description of the nature of your business. But don't go overboard. This is not the time for a sales pitch. Instead, if they're interested, arrange to follow up with them another time.
•Behave yourself. If a client invites you to a party, remember, it's really a business event for you. Sure, you can have a beer or glass of wine, but don't get drunk. After all, you don't want their lasting impression to be of you doing cannonballs in the deep end of the pool, shouting, "Geronimo!"
Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Their newest is Finding an Angel Investor In A Day. Register for Rhonda's free business planning newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com. For an index of her columns, click here. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2008.