How to play the business dating game

This article is accompanied by a warning.

Networking is a very important activity for people running start-up businesses, but it can kill you!

Worry not; there’s no evidence of widespread use of semi-automatics at events, nor are consultants known for popping poisonous pills into pints.

However, there are some well-meaning people out there who regularly attend network meetings and possess a stealth-like ability to bore others completely to death.

The right mindset

Getting on with people is a very important skill in business. Entrepreneurial minds tend to be much more relaxed about meeting others for the first time and networking events are organised so that people can do just that.

Unfortunately, many people network with the wrong mindset – they focus on themselves and treat all the people they meet as potential customers or people to talk at. And unfortunately, the majority of people in business confuse selling with talking. To find out more on this dynamic, read: ‘Building sound business relationships from scratch’.

As a consequence, networking events are often dominated by people trying to sell to one another which can get rather dull. And once you have been talked at by more than one person on the subject of insurance, banking or image consultancy for example, you’ll notice that you become quite defensive and/or your concentration levels start to flag.

As a consequence, you’ll either get wound up and want to leave or you’ll fall into the same trap and start firing ‘talk salvoes’ back, all about yourself. It’s like two magnets with the same polarity squaring up to one another.

How should it work?

Ideally, networking events would attract buyers and sellers in equal measure but it’s a very rare thing. However, this powerful equilibrium is demonstrated perfectly in the world of hitchhiking because the hiker and driver are equal in number and actively seek something from the other person. Typically the hitchhiker is seeking transport and offers companionship; meanwhile the driver is seeking companionship and offers transport.

One of the underpinning reasons why hitchhiking works is the fact that neither party expects to pay or receive money (I did once offer to pay a driver because I was so relieved to get a lift but he rightly refused – we got on like a house on fire).

With no money changing hands there is no sense of expectation or failure. Everything is based on trust. People behave in a much more relaxed manner and are typically much more open and interested in the other person and their ideas.

Open mindedness

So to play the business dating game effectively, you need to focus not just on what you offer but critically on what you seek and might buy. Such an open-minded approach requires you to question and listen (avoids boring) and means you find suppliers as well as clients. By questioning and listening, you allow the other person to talk and discover all sorts of stuff which you didn’t know beforehand.

Importantly, being open minded also means you are able to discover creative ways to work in partnership with people. Rather than buying and selling from each other you can be innovative and work together to provide a fresh product or service to new markets that you had not previously considered. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just requires you to look at what you both have, think laterally and be prepared to work together.

And if you can seek and forge effective partnerships, you will be very effective as well as popular on the business dating scene.

Key Learning Points: Networking is an important business activity but don’t fall into the trap of just telling people about what you do. Uncover new opportunities and partnerships by questioning, listening and keeping an open mind at all times.

Open your mind to the behaviour of others

Being able to read thinking and have an insight into peoples’ behaviour is a real advantage when it comes to entrepreneurial life. Some people find building relationships easier than others; but regardless of your own ability, the development of this skill is very important and it requires experience, practice and an appreciation of some behavioural theory (recommend Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence).

In life we typically surround ourselves with people like ourselves. This necessarily limits our learning. Hitchhiking, much like business however, forces us to meet and get on with different people; and whilst I didn’t realise it at the time, the experience on the road taught me invaluable lessons that helped to make life in business easier.

Reading people and situations

Getting on with people in a car meant I travelled further. The questioning and listening strategy (highlighted in the previous article) typically worked very well but it didn’t take me long to tune into people who didn’t want to chat and/or reveal information about themselves. For the record, these people taught me how to deal with silence.

Then there were people who would happily talk but seemed to take no interest in me. The journey was memorable for the monologue – let’s say no more.  And occasionally I would get in a vehicle to be confronted by someone who was very strident with their opinions and seemed keen to argue.

But how do you draw meaning from these experiences?

In the nineties, a UK organisation (The Husthwaite Group) conducted extensive research into buying behaviour and as a result devised a behavioural model based on peoples’ levels of assertiveness and responsiveness (see diagram 1).

Diagram 1

The findings made for very interesting reading that not only concurred with my experience of working with people in business but also made sense of the behaviour of people I had met on the road.

The model divided people into 4 groups: Analysts; Drivers; Amiables; and Expressives each of which have their own behavioural characteristics based on levels of assertiveness and responsiveness.

Assertive people are confident and know what they want. They put forward opinions and listen to others. Conflict is not a problem and they will happily argue their case. People who are highly assertive can come over as aggressive (think about Alan Sugar). In contrast, people who lack assertiveness tend to focus more on the detail, are typically passive and others can take advantage.

Responsiveness is the extent to which people respond to us and our questions. Some people are very responsive and give lots of information about themselves, their problems and needs. Others are less willing or unable to respond in this way.

We are all different and few of us fit precisely into the model because our behaviour changes depending on the circumstances. But the value of this research-based theory however, is that it helps us to understand ourselves as well as other people. Used intelligently and regularly, this modelling helps us to nurture business relationships and helps us to understand people who are different to ourselves.

Hitchhiking taught me the value of reflecting the behaviour of the person I was with. The Husthwaite research reached the same conclusion about mirroring behaviour but takes this notion further because the model produces results in a meaningful manner.

As an outgoing person I am happy to voice my opinions and I like to talk with people – which puts me squarely in the ‘Expressive’ box’. However, when I recognise I am working with ‘analysts’, ‘amiables’ or ‘drivers’ I know I must alter my behaviour to get the very best out of them and the meeting.

Key Learning Points: Meeting different people expands our comfort zone and improves our ability to get on with people not like ourselves. Use experience and the theoretical model to understand behaviour and develop stronger business relationships.

Building sound relationships from scratch

The car stops. Within seconds you’re opening the vehicle’s passenger door and eyeing the driver.

A short conversation ensues concerning the direction and destination of both parties. But in truth the verbal exchange simply masks the more important stuff, because the decision to accept a lift is never a small one. You’re checking out the driver’s appearance and the state of the vehicle; you listen to tone; smell the air. And if they’ve got company, there’s many more judgements to make.

Rugby legend

Sometimes the decision is easy and delightful. For example, whilst hitching north of Aberystwyth I opened the door of a large gleaming Mercedes only to set eyes on a world rugby legend sitting at the wheel. Then there’s the bizarre, like the time I slung back a minibus door to be greeted by a group of singing builders (with an unusual passion for scaffolding) . And of course, the real challenges; when your sixth sense (which is developed through experience) suggests something isn’t right.

And that ‘dynamic’ of meeting new people is the same in business. Entrepreneurs cannot wait for people to come to them. This necessarily means going out to see people and finding yourself in unfamiliar territory and different situations. This stretches the comfort zone and initially puts you out of control, but with practice and experience patterns of behaviour emerge and confidence grows.

It’s accepted that people are typically far less relaxed when they meet others for the first time. These first few critical seconds and minutes can be awkward. But just like the hitchhiker, the entrepreneur has a vested interest in developing their judgement skills, using time efficiently and being liked by people they meet. So get on with it!

Judgement Skills

First opinions about people are typically formed within 7 seconds.  As a hitchhiker I rarely spent much time talking about directions before getting in the vehicle. And I reckon I can count on one hand the lift offers I actually rejected. And these ratios reflect almost exactly my first-time meetings with people in business. Within 10 seconds I’ve decided the person in front of me isn’t a complete lunatic and it’s likely that the time will be well spent.

As with the hitchhiker, it’s important not to just listen to what people say when you first meet them. If you’re in their office what does the rest of the room tell you about them? How well do they dress? How much interest do they really take in you? How do they behave towards others who may be around? Answers to these questions provide clues about the person/people with whom you are dealing and you are able to adjust your own behaviour accordingly. You’ll find many other articles within this Blog that focus on the issue of Human Behaviour.

Getting people to like you

My unexpected meeting with Welsh rugby legend Gareth Edwards (and scorer of the greatest try in rugby history) will live with me forever. But  throughout that memorable journey winding through the valleys, I enjoyed listening to arguably the most talented Welsh rugby player ever to have lived, his take on that famous Barbarians try, how his career started and of course why he picked me up. As such, Gareth did most of the talking and I just listened. This simple dynamic works in a very powerful way and builds relationships because it is based on the following principle:

…the most important person in our own world is ourselves and given the opportunity we typically ‘like’ to talk about ourselves. 

Within the pages of the must read book ‘Influence: Science & Practice‘, author Robert Cialdini devotes a whole chapter to the issue of ‘Liking’. Critically, we like people who take a genuine interest in us and the easiest way to demonstrate this is to ask questions and listen to what people say.

The entrepreneur who bothers to take a genuine interest in prospects, customers, suppliers and staff makes people feel good about themselves and thus builds stronger relationships. By contrast, the person who talks endlessly about themselves falls into a common trap. They bore quickly and struggle to build quality relationships.

As a hitchhiker it was always my way to encourage the driver to talk about themselves. Not only was it interesting to learn about their lives, but they typically drove me further (Gareth very kindly went an extra 20 miles).

However, people are different and some are cautious about revealing information. When I hitched some didn’t want to talk at all. But by tuning into situations it was possible to adopt appropriate strategies that reflected the needs of the individual with whom I travelled.

Key Learning Points: Regularly meeting new people makes you a better judge of others and situations. Actively seek non-verbal and verbal clues to help you assess others and create a positive influence by asking questions and listening to the answers.

How market focused businesses go further faster

What is the best question to ask in market research?

When starting up far too many businesses don’t ask any meaningful questions at all. Instead they focus on the product or service they offer rather than the market being served. Research is considered a distraction rather than the guiding light to doing good business – and it’s a key reason why so many businesses fail early on.

If you want more evidence on this subject just watch ‘Dragon’s Den’ and see how many ‘failed’ presenters know their product inside out but their market knowledge is guesswork at best.

Market research has to be right up there in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. If you don’t observe, note and understand the ‘rules of the road’ you won’t travel very far. And as a rule of thumbing (sorry), once I was in the vehicle I would typically start an early conversation by seeking to better understand why drivers chose to offer me a lift. And that’s the best question in market research: “Why?”

The question ‘why?’ naturally seeks deeper reasoning and thinking. Asked in the right tone, the respondent is invited to provide invaluable detail. And the resulting information allows you to learn about and ultimately make subtle but absolutely critical changes to aspects of your product or service. Basic market research (what? when? how? etc.) should highlight demand levels but if your offer doesn’t ‘unpack’ in just the right way to customers, then sales can be hugely affected.

Find out what people want & provide it

Hitching taught me very quickly that a large rucksack spoke volumes to passing drivers. A rucksack, I was told, was non threatening; it suggested I was travelling with a purpose; and people warmed to the idea that they were helping someone who they believed had been living in the great outdoors. On this note of behavioural understanding, I recommend you check out ‘semiotics’ because this fascinating subject is going to be a fast developing field of study over the next few years.

People also commented on the merit of where I should stand on the roadside – it was important to them that they had time to see me, make a judgement and pull over with relative safety. My appearance was also an issue to (I was never scruffy nor overdressed) but people were divided over whether I should be using a sign or just my thumb (more about this when I write about promotion).

Fortune favours the brave (and wise)

Observing peoples’ behaviour and using research to modify my roadside ‘offer’ never stopped. A journey that started in Fort William and ended in York (1988) demonstrates the benefit of knowing what people want.

I knew it was a long-shot covering the 350+ miles in a day so I needed to stack the odds as best I could. Research showed there was no ‘driver-friendly’ place to hitch from (on the road out of Fort William) and so I arranged for a friend to drive me a few miles into Glen Coe, where I was dropped off at a roadside lay-by with a great view back down the road.

There was very little traffic in the Glen that day. But the clarity of the air meant I saw every vehicle long before I heard it. After 25 minutes only 3 vehicles had passed by. Then a wagon became visible in the distance and it slowly made its way up the valley towards me. Stood at the end of the lay-by I put my thumb out so the driver had a good view of me for at least 200 yards. At the last minute, the air brakes went on and I knew I was in luck.

Better still, when I climbed the cab stairs and opened the door to tell him I was headed to York, his smile widened. With a friendly Yorkshire accent, he let me know it was my lucky day – he was off to Doncaster! Full of enthusiasm I got in the cab and it wasn’t long before I asked him the ‘why?’ question. He told me that he liked to pick up hitchhikers for the company, but if I had been stood anywhere else in the Glen he probably wouldn’t have seen me or been able to stop safely. My day could have been completely different.

And these and many other questions were asked every time I hitched – just as much as market research should be a continuous exercise with potential and existing customers. Like my travels, it doesn’t mean you have to devise formal questionnaires or organise expensive focus groups – so much gold-dust can be extracted by asking critical but simple questions of the right people at the right time.

But knowing the market is one thing; you must know your competitors too.

Key Learning Points: Focus on the market so that products or services you develop are demand led. Use the ‘why’ question to really understand what motivates your customers and drives them to make decisions that affect your business.