I was recently interviewed by the Society for Human Resources Management on effective ways to benefit from attending a live conference. The article is very insightful, and I’ve received permission from the author to reproduce it for you here.
It’s targeted toward HR consultants, but the content is applicable to ANYONE who attends conferences, conventions, or networking events of any size…
How To ‘Work’ a Conference
By Lin Grensing-Pophal, January 2007
HR consultants who are new to the consulting arena are often surprised at how much time they must devote to marketing their business. Once they are self-employed, however, consultants are generally on their own when it comes to drumming up business. For many, it proves challenging, because marketing can require the development of never-before-required skills and expertise.
Unlike product-based businesses where traditional advertising can help drive sales, consultants generally must rely on personal connections to yield results. Fortunately, the networking available at professional conferences can provide one of the richest sources of referrals, according to many consultants. To be successful, however, independent consultants may have to step outside their comfort zones to make the critical connections needed to increase their bottom line.
Choosing the ‘Right’ Conferences
Choosing a conference to attend begins with the consultant identifying decision-makers within his or her target audience who are in a position to say “yes” to the services being offered. Once known, it is possible to drill down to the types of conferences and events those individuals might frequent. A small conference of 50 “qualified prospects” may be more valuable than a large event for those who are not in a position to purchase services.
There are likely to be at least a handful of opportunities—among the thousands of conferences held each year—for HR consultants to make contact with those in the market for their services. An Internet search can be a good starting point. Searching a key phrase—such as “benefits administrators”—and the word “conference” can help identify the most relevant events. Narrowing down the list of venues to those that present the greatest potential for networking is a formidable task. The agenda for each event should therefore be examined to determine if there are informal or organized opportunities for interaction and socializing, such as breaks, vendor fairs, receptions and roundtable sessions.
Know the Audience “Find out everything you can about those who will be attending,” says Olivia Fox, executive director of Spitfire Communications and expert on networking, communication and business development. That means taking more than a cursory look at the brochure, she says. The more knowledge a consultant has about attendees’ backgrounds, roles, purchasing power, interests and concerns, the more quickly a connection can be made, she adds. Consultants should not hesitate to gather information about attendees’ locations, duties and interests to use as a springboard for further conversation, Fox says.
Marty Fahncke, president of FawnKey & Associates, a consulting and business advisory firm, echoes the need for consultants to seek out potential clients at such events. Have a plan and a purpose before attending a conference, he says. “Look over the agenda, the list of speakers and the list of attendees and determine who you want to meet with while you’re there,” says Fahncke, who has extensive experience in “working conferences for maximum value” and even lectures on the topic.
Loren Ekroth—publisher of the e-zine Better Conversations, and an interpersonal communication specialist and executive coach—agrees.Consultants should try to make connections with key people before the conference, he says, and set up times and places to meet, if possible. “Don’t leave to chance these few opportunities,” he says. If the conference organizers will not provide a list of attendees prior to the conference, plan to arrive early and see if it is available on-site.
Making a Connection
Making the best connections requires preparation, a positive attitude and a lot of energy—and is an important-enough task that it may be worthwhile for a consultant to skip the sessions and focus on socializing, Fox says. To maximize opportunities to connect with conference goers, organizers and speakers, arrive early, Fox says. Use the time to warm up slowly as other participants arrive, she says, and offer to help the meeting organizers with setup, if appropriate. This can help a consultant be perceived as “one of the insiders.” In addition, Fox suggests wearing something people can talkabout: “anything that will draw attention and inspire people to approach you.” Bright colors can make it easier for conference attendees to find a consultant once the initial contact has been made.
For those who find it challenging to strike up a conversation, Fox suggests planning conversation starters before the event. Turn to the agenda and conference speakers for ideas, and consider recent events and relevant consulting projects that may tie into session topics. Once a conversation is started, listening becomes key, Ekroth says. “Do more listening than talking in order to find out the challenges, problems or pain points your prospect is dealing with in their business or profession,” he says. “Showing genuine interest without ‘pitching’ is almost always more productive. Build the relationship first and follow up later.”
“Never sit with the same person twice,” Fahncke says, to facilitate as many connections as possible. “Whether at the educational sessions, at the meal or anywhere else, make it a point to sit next to people you don’t know.”
Maintaining the Connection After the Event
Once home, do not neglect the critical step of following up, Fahncke says.“The majority of people come home from a conference, take all of the business cards they collected and throw them in a drawer,” he says. “Don’t do that.” He suggests following up with every contact with a letter or card, along with a small gift or branded specialty item if applicable. Conferences and seminars can present rich opportunities for HR consultants to build relationships and grow their businesses, as long as appropriate attention is paid to conference selection, preparation, participation and follow-through. Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).