When running an accountancy practice, ensuring you serve current clients well and continue expanding your network are the keys to longevity. It can, however, be difficult to find the time and the most effective ways to do this. So, what are your options when it comes to networking to win business, and how can you make the most of any opportunities that come your way?
The first step in a successful networking strategy is to identify the opportunities out there. The good news is that these are plentiful, both specific to the accountancy sector and more general in their scope.
So, look for local groups that organise networking events; these could be free groups organised by local councils or business improvement districts; you could also consider becoming a member of an organisation such as the Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses or the Institute of Directors.
While free, local events can be a great starting point, larger, paid-for groups can be a more fruitful long-term choice, offering a greater range of potential contacts and additional benefits with membership.
As well as specific networking groups, look out for trade shows and similar events relevant to your offering. These can provide an opportunity to meet many companies in one day and host social events that allow you to build crucial relationships that can often lead to more business.
If you're not sure where to start, speak to your existing clients and see if they have any recommendations. This has the double advantage of there being someone you know at an event who will hopefully recommend you, and you'll know that attendees will be the kind of clients you're looking for.
Networking doesn't have to all be in person these days. Joining groups on social media, engaging in conversations and sharing ideas online is a great way to dip your toe into the networking scene. Once it's time to attend an in-person event, having an existing relationship with other people in attendance can also make the whole experience much less daunting.
Of course, once you've identified the events that you think will be worth attending, it won't just be a case of turning up and gaining new clients. Preparation, perseverance and taking a personal approach are all key to getting the most from whichever event you attend. So, firstly, choose an event that fits your target market. If your accountancy firm works mostly with small businesses, look for an event that attracts this market; if you work mostly with clients in a particular sector, target that area, and so on.
Next up, think about what you want to achieve from your networking.
While it may simply be that you want to win more clients, this won't necessarily happen straight away, so consider other benefits, such as learning about an industry or aim to speak to a certain number of people at each event.
Also, be prepared to talk. Networking is about getting to know people, not just selling your business, so come armed with questions. Depending on the event, you may be able to get the list of attendees in advance, in which case you could even do a bit of research into those people you specifically want to speak to.
Once you've started the conversation, find out if there's a way to help them. If it's coming to year-end and they're struggling to meet filing deadlines, you could highlight your skills and availability or just offer advice to build trust. Also, try to end with a positive action, such as swapping business cards or asking for their social media handles, and if you say you'll follow up with them about something, make sure you do.
This could be as simple as connecting with them on LinkedIn or sending them a personal email. Networking is an ongoing action, and the best way to get to know people is to connect with them at each event, so don't let them down that first time. Remember, people's needs will change, too; while they may not need your accountancy services now, that doesn't mean they never will.
Whatever stage of your career, networking adds value - and it's about more than simply attracting clients. As the shortage of talent in the accounting industry bites, networking can be an effective way of finding new employees to ensure your practice continues to thrive. If things become challenging, having the support of people in your industry or the knowledge of leaders from the wider business world can be a huge benefit, offering advice and guidance when needed. By working to build genuine relationships with these people, it can also help you to continue to grow your business, as you'll be front of mind whenever they need your services. Finally, speaking with your pool of contacts can be a great way to come up with new ideas and find solutions to any challenges.
Remember though; networking should work both ways - you should be available to offer support and advice as much as you rely on your network.
While any networking can be useful to hone your skills and develop your confidence if your aim is to win business, try to find people who fit your target audience, whether that's small business owners, start-ups, or large organisations. Again, you should choose your networking events based on where these people meet, so once you're in the right place, network away!
Remember, you don't just have to network with strangers; organising events for current and former clients, colleagues and former colleagues, and even friends and family can help you to unveil opportunities. Even people who have nothing professionally in common with you have their networks and might know someone who needs your services.
Your LinkedIn profile can be a valuable tool when it comes to business networking. Many people use the site to search for people with the skills they need, and it may well be the first way new contacts reach out to you.
This being the case, your profile must be up to date and enticing. Make sure your skills, qualifications and experience are clear, but also ask colleagues and contacts to endorse your skills and recommend you. Post your insights, achievements and interests – these can all be great conversation starters – and share relevant content that will engage your connections. And, of course, like, comment on and share posts from your network to help build that community.
Have a clear goal in mind: Knowing who you'd like to connect with and what you want to achieve from each event will make networking more effective and help with your preparation.
Bring a buddy: Networking can be awkward and out of many people's comfort zones, so consider bringing a friend or colleague along for support.
Identify conversational icebreakers: Have a few questions up your sleeve in case there are people you want to approach or to avoid any awkward silences.
Be ready to listen: While you want to make sure conversation flows, you're there to learn and meet new people, so be sure to give the other person time to speak too.
Keep going: If the first couple of events don't deliver much in the way of returns, don't give up – networking is often a slow burner. To measure outcomes, though – if one group is showing more results, focus on that; if you're spending a lot but not gaining any interest, consider looking for new approaches.
Networking doesn't finish once the event does, and you'll benefit most from your efforts if you have an effective follow-up procedure. As well as connecting with them on LinkedIn, consider signing up for any newsletters they offer or follow them on Twitter or Instagram.
Depending on the level of the conversation, a personal email may also be a good idea. Reiterate how nice it was to meet, highlight any specifics from the conversation and share any information they were interested in. You could even invite them to subscribe to your newsletter or suggest a way to develop the conversation, such as meeting at the next event or going for coffee. Always be friendly, not pushy, though.
Crucially, be on hand to help your new contact should they need it. You can widen and strengthen your network even further if you introduce your new contact to people who can help them – chances are they'll return the favour in the future too.