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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Personal development: Effective networking

Networking is essential to career and business success but few of us are naturals and actuaries are no different. In today’s highly competitive world, being a confident and effective networker can set you apart from the crowd. You become more visible, feel more in control and can create greater business opportunities compared to other professionals. However, people generally find this aspect of their working lives somewhat of a challenge.

Getting started
The core skill we need to be an effective networker is to ask the right questions. Wouldn’t life be so easy if we simply went to an event and asked: "Are your present advisers any good and, if not, would you like to appoint us?" Unfortunately it takes a little more subtlety than that. Asking a crude question such as the one above will never win you a piece of business - ever.

Professional advisers are particularly uncomfortable with business development in general and selling in particular. It’s not a secure arena, not at all like being in your own office giving advice and offering expertise. When you go out looking for new business there is always the possibility of failure and being rejected. However, more staff, from trainees upwards, are being encouraged to ‘be out there’ networking. Networking is simply building relationships - it isn’t selling in the normal sense. In fact, the two don’t mix - they’re like oil and water. We network to spot potential opportunities and meet later to explore ideas. You sell yourself, not the firm. Always remember you are an ambassador for your own brand.

Help, do not sell
Not everyone can sell. If you don’t like it, feel unenthusiastic and uncomfortable doing it and most of the time look for every opportunity to stay away from it, then my strong advice is to avoid it. Simply ask questions to find out if someone has an issue they can’t handle or are using other firms they’re not happy with. This then becomes a potential opportunity to offer help and advice, and subsequently adds value. Helping, rather than selling, makes it so much easier in the mind of the reluctant business developer.

The emphasis should be on ‘interested’ rather than ‘interesting’. Encourage others to talk about themselves, show genuine interest and be a good listener. You become extremely interesting when you become interested. When you meet someone who is happy to talk about their business, and they are open and forthright, there is no reason not to determine the relationship they have with their present advisers. When it’s a business event, that is the reason why they are there - looking for various opportunities.

When you feel you have built up some rapport and empathy with the other person and feel comfortable in their presence, then you can explore this potential business relationship. However, it is still not the time to ask the question: "Will you change your actuarial advisers to us, please?"

The 10 questions
Here are 10 questions to consider:

1 Do you mind me asking?
After asking the person about their business or career you will be able to gauge the level of their reactions. Start in a gentle manner, if you feel the question might be sensitive or you’re not sure what sort of response you’ll get, always start with a ‘permission-asking’ question.

2 Who do you use at the moment?
Be very careful with your reaction when you hear the answer. It is not what you say but what your body language says. If you believe the company they are using has staff of dubious reputation, never criticise the opposition, don’t even imply criticism. Instead, use, "Yes, we know of them," and maybe add, "They have a good reputation." Do not be too generous with your praise.

3 How long have you been with them?
You need to ascertain early on whether or not they have just changed to their present advisers or if they’ve been with them a long time. If it is the latter, there is every chance the present incumbent may be coming up to retirement - a big potential opportunity.

4 What made you choose them? or What criteria did you use to appoint them?
Never just ask "Why?", as it is often a challenging question unless asked in a very gentle tone. It will be useful to know whether the advisers were in place when the person you’re chatting with joined the company, or whether the person in question appointed them.

5 What sort of services do they provide? or What do you use them for?
This question is asked if it is likely that they use a firm offering a number of different services. You may also ask a supplementary question at this point, such as: "Are they the only company you use for that service?"

Fish - don’t harpoon
At this mid-point it may sound as if I am asking you to walk around with a mental clipboard and a series of prescriptive questions. I suppose in a way I am but it has to be a gentle exploration with lots of time for answers, rather than an interrogation under a strong spotlight. We all know that it is not what you say, it is the way that you say it. You’re just fishing, and fishing is a delicate sport.

6 How often do you see them?
This will give you a rough indication of the number of transactions they do.

7 Where are they based?
If it is a company you haven’t heard of, or it has numerous offices, this could be useful information. If their adviser isn’t local and you are, and if they aren’t fully happy, this can work in your favour.

8 How do you find them?
This is one of the most important questions you’ll be asking at any business event. This is an open question giving your partner a wide range of answers. Please don’t ask, "Are they any good?" or "What could they do better?" Even the latter question suggests that the person you’re talking to isn’t fully happy with their present incumbent. This key question should be asked in a matter-of- fact manner.

Watch the person’s reactions very carefully as you’re listening for their response. Unless you meet an accomplished actor, people can’t lie with their body language or with the tone of their voice. For example, if someone responds by raising their eyebrows, this will tell you a great deal about the relationship. If they say, "We think they’re superb", don’t simply excuse yourself and find someone else to talk to. Ask, "Why do you say that exactly?" or "What specifically do they do well?"

When people are satisfied be pleased for them and say so. As long as you behave in a respectful manner and build rapport, you are setting yourself up to ‘sit on the subs bench’. Things change all the time; companies change hands, people move on and their personal circumstances change. If you have made a good impression and keep in touch every so often, you have every chance of picking up a new client in the future. Networking isn’t a quick fix and if you’re a member of the Impatience Society this activity isn’t for you. At this point, you may want to know who they work with there; they could be a useful addition to your own team one day.

If you get a neutral or negative reply, take care with your next question. Even if they really complain and grumble about their present advisers, don’t agree with them. Condemning the opposition does neither party nor your profession any good. When people want to have a good moan, just listen and then start to ask one of the two final questions below.

9 If there’s one thing you’d like them to do differently - not better, that implies criticism on your part - what might it be?

10 What are you looking for from your actuary?
This question takes the personalities out of the equation, which can do no harm at all. By way of a bonus question consider asking: "If you were telling someone else about the service you are presently getting, what would you be saying?" You are de-personalising the question by asking it in this way. The follow-up If you find someone isn’t happy with their existing advisers or they need some help, what do you do next? That’s for another day, another article. In short, you need to follow up. Why? If they’ve said they’re not happy with their present advisers, the chances are they are going to change one day.

Will Kintish is a coach on effective and confident networking. He has worked with the Bank of England, Ernst & Young and HSBC, in addition to industry names such as Watson Wyatt and Lane Clark & Peacock