Virtual Assistants often feel apprehensive about attending networking events but, as many VAs say it’s their most successful way of landing clients and because you’re going to have to do it anyway, it (literally) pays to be good at it. Talking to a room full of strangers may sound daunting, but with my advice, you’ll be a networking superstar in no time.
Networking is an activity that can take place both online and in person. Physical networking events are great if you want clients in your local area, and online networking is perfect if you have a target client that you wouldn’t necessarily meet locally.
General best practice and advice
It’s just talking to people
Please don’t feel daunted by networking and worry that it’s going to be an awkward and stressful process because it really isn’t.
Networking is literally just a group of people who happen to run businesses having a chat to see if they can help each other in some way.
Many VAs think they need to memorise their Elevator Pitch but, while you should be able to summarise what you do in one sentence, you’re not acting so you don’t need to memorise lines. You know what you do and how you help people, so talking about your business should be pretty easy.
It’s not about you
Some VAs hate the idea of talking about their business but this is insane because:
- You love what you do and are excited about the life-changing ways you make and save people time and money, right?
- The point of networking isn’t to talk about yourself, it’s to find out as much as you can about the other person.
You gather this information in the same way as when you hold a client consultation.
You’re looking to find out things like:
- Why they started their business.
- What they are really good at.
- What they love about what they do.
- What aspects of their business they don’t particularly enjoy or aren’t very good at.
- Who their clients are and what they help them to achieve.
- How many emails are in their inbox.
- How they find their clients and what their onboarding process is.
- Whether they have enough clients/work.
- Where they see (or hope to see) their business going.
- What kinds of tasks are on their to-do list.
- What’s on their ‘other’ to-do list. The one they never get around to.
When you ask business owners these kinds of questions you find out what makes them tick and what challenges they face which means you can identify where you can help.
For example, you may discover that:
- They have enough clients but they don’t provide a follow-up service or ask for testimonials and/or referrals.
- They don’t have any proper Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in place.
- They think they could benefit from a newsletter but don’t know how to set one up or have the time to write it.
- The open rate of their existing newsletter is poor or doesn’t result in enquiries/sales.
- They’d like a social media presence but don’t know where to start.
- They’re considering online consultations but don’t know how to set up the booking and payment process.
- Their client onboarding system is haphazard.
- They spend most of their day firefighting or dealing with customer service emails.
- They want to rebrand, move their website, or pay less for their utilities but never find the time to shop around for quotes.
- They have loads of outstanding invoices but hate chasing them.
- They feel suffocated by their inboxes or that they have 5 different email addresses but don’t know how to amalgamate them.
- Etc etc.
Of course, unless you’re Yoda you’re unlikely to be able to undertake every single task they need help with, but you don’t need to.
A VA’s job is to sort stuff out, not do it all themselves!
So, ask as many questions as you can. People love talking about their business and by showing interest, you create a lasting impression and build rapport. You are also giving the other person an insight into what it would be like to work with you and how focused you would be on the success of their business.
You need to know what you do
This may sound obvious, but networking is a lot easier if you know what you actually do. By this, I mean the tasks you can undertake and the benefit of hiring you.
So, instead of just saying that you’re a Virtual Assistant elaborate by providing examples of the types of things you can help with. Explain that by outsourcing tasks they don’t know how to do, don’t want to do, or don’t need to do, small business owners are freed up to focus on the exciting parts of their business and what they do best.
People need to know what’s in it for them, so explain that by handing over time-consuming tasks to someone who charges less per hour than they do, they will automatically make more money.
This is why you want them to talk about what they do first.
If you’ve just listened to someone talk about their business for 15 minutes you can then tailor the example tasks you can help with to reflect what they’ve just told you about their business challenges and what they are looking to achieve.
It’s a slow burn
People do business with people they know, people they like and people they trust – and this takes time.
Networking can really pay off but you may not see immediate results. Just get your name/face out there and start having conversations. You’re looking to build personal relationships which, obviously, do not happen overnight.
You should network even when you’re busy
It’s crazy how many enquiries I receive from people who say they were referred by a local business owner, but when I’m given their name, I have absolutely no idea who they’re talking about!
I just know that I must have met them in the past and made a good impression.
The more people who know who you are and what you do, the more people can say “oh, I know someone who can help you with that” when they hear a friend or business contact complain about their admin.
This is something many VAs fail to do, but continuing to network even when you’re busy, will pay dividends in the long run.
By staying visible, you will establish a pool of warm leads which you can add to a waiting list, outsource to an associate or even replace your lower-paying clients with.
You don’t have to take on every piece of work that comes your way but if you stop networking and all your clients unexpectedly drop off or your main client disappears, you won’t be scrabbling around in a panic. Instead, you just contact your pool of warm leads saying you have some upcoming availability.
It’s all about giving
I’m sure you’ve met pushy people at networking events. They don’t listen to what you’re saying, they fail to engage in meaningful conversation and they focus on what they can get rather than what they can give.
We all try to avoid that person.
If you approach networking with the mindset of how someone can help you instead of how you can help them, you will never achieve any meaningful results.
But if you freely offer advice, point people in the right direction and connect them with other useful contacts, you’re more likely to be known, trusted and respected – which will result in being referred or directly hired.
You’re connecting, not collecting
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word connection as “a relationship between two things”. We’ve already ascertained that networking is about building relationships, so aim to create a one-to-one meaningful connection with everyone you network with.
Think of it in the same way as dating.
I once heard the famous Digital Marketer Ryan Deiss liken marketing to dating. You have to get to know someone and establish a relationship before you try to get them into bed or ask them to marry you!
You get better with time
If you feel apprehensive about networking, it’s only because it’s new and you haven’t done it before.
I guarantee that you will very quickly find your own way of talking about what you do. You will become much more comfortable talking to strangers about your business and it won’t feel daunting anymore.
In fact, many VAs start off feeling anxious about networking and end up loving it. Some VAs enjoy it so much they even go on to create their own events.
Take time to review
Going to a networking event takes valuable time out of your day so it won’t be financially viable to regularly attend every meeting in town.
I suggest you try a few events and then assess after you’ve been a few times. Consider whether you enjoy them and if you receive tangible leads.
Because networking should lead to paid work.
I remember a trainee once telling me how she was spending half the week at networking events because she loved them so much. But when I asked how many clients they led to she said none… it turned out she was using them as social events!
So, although you may really enjoy networking and talking to people, they are a means to an end and need to deliver results at some point.
The busy people may not be there
While you should continue to network even when you’re busy, it’s worth remembering that many people will be networking because they don’t have any work. The busy people who need a VA may not be in attendance.
Because they are too busy to go networking!
I remember a trainee saying that she went to a literary workshop because she wanted to work with authors but she was concerned that her niche wasn’t viable because nobody there had any money. I said, of course – that’s why there were there. Successful authors didn’t need to attend the event.
This turned out to be true. However, when she used my direct marketing approach instead, she successfully landed a number of literary clients.
Advice for in-person networking
The great thing about a physical networking event is that the use of body language and eye contact means, theoretically, you can establish a relationship faster than you can online.
Also, you can say more in a minute than you can type, meanings and intentions don’t get lost in translation and you eliminate the risk of an accidental typo – which is not a good look for a VA!
Local business events are great when you first start out and don’t yet have a specific niche but it’s also valuable to become known in your area even if you prefer to work with niche clients who may not be found at a local event.
Where to find local networking events:
- Meetup.com – via formal business events and by talking to members of local social groups.
- Chamber of Commerce.
- Federation of Small Business.
- Athena Network.
- Ladies Who Latte.
- Co-working spaces.
- Google! Just type ‘networking events in your town/county/state/country’.
Networking is just talking to people – and people are everywhere.
I once found a client by taking my neighbour’s dog for a walk – if someone is walking their dog in the afternoon, chances are they run their own business. My trainees report finding clients by talking to taxi drivers, during jury service and even at the dentist.
Join in and make others feel welcome
Good networking events are led by the organiser who should welcome you, find out what you do and then introduce you to appropriate members they think you should meet. If the organiser doesn’t do this then ask them to do so.
Although you might feel nervous approaching a group of strangers, I’ve found the best method is just to put a friendly face on, walk up to a group of people and stand quietly listening in.
Once the person who is speaking stops, the group will usually acknowledge you and bring you into the conversation. If they don’t do this then introduce yourself and ask what they were just talking about.
The same format applies when someone tries to join a group discussion you are part of. We all remember how it felt to be the new person in the room, so make sure to welcome any newbies into the conversation.
Don’t feel you have to pay
You may have seen paid networking events on your travels – these are commonly held by the Chamber of Commerce and BNI. While many VAs feel that paid events result in higher-quality leads, you can acquire leads pretty much anywhere, really.
If you’re not sure if paid events are worth the money, go to one or two then assess the results. You can often attend one free of charge and other members can sometimes bring a guest.
A word on BNI
I’m sometimes asked if BNI events are ‘worth it’ and, although I have never attended any myself (some people liken them to a cult but for me, I just dislike early starts and commitment!), I always recommend trying everything at least once and then reviewing the results.
Some of my trainees have never received any work from BNI events, some get all of their clients from them, and others had poor results from one chapter but did well in another.
Results vary and, as with all marketing and business matters, what works for one VA may not work for another.
As you can see by these comments from my trainee-only group:
“I joined and really struggled to get any clients. I ended up working harder at getting referrals and visitors (the pressure I was put under was immense) than actually getting my business up and running. I left before my first year was up because I couldn’t handle the stress.”
“I’ve been to a few as a guest and subbed a few times. Never got anything from it. It’s not just the financial side that concerns me but all the referral work that goes with it. Personally, I’d be happy to go as a guest or sub but not join.”
“I went to one but it really wasn’t my vibe – but then my services aren’t traditional VA/PA and my ideal clients aren’t execs so maybe I am not the best person to comment. What I will say is that there are cheaper groups out there I am a member of the Athena Network and have made lots of contacts and had some work from it.”
“I think the groups really differ even just down the road from each other. The one I went to as a guest was friendly enough but the whole referral system and emphasis on how much business the group had referred to each other made me feel uncomfortable. That with the cost and having to go every week just didn’t work for me but I know it works well for other VAs.”
“I was a member for 18 months – I left 11 months ago and I still get work from people I met there. It took me a while to get established and for people to understand my business (I’m not a traditional VA) but I more than recouped my investment, and the relationships I formed were invaluable. It is a hell of a commitment though!”
“I started my business two months ago and joined BNI at the same time. I had no clients and now I have six – three from BNI. It’s not for everyone but if you play it right, it’s a winner.”
Choose quality over quantity
It’s far better to have a few quality, in-depth conversations Go deep rather than wide and focus on getting to properly know three or four people per event instead of running around the room thrusting business cards into everyone’s hands like a crazy person.
Don’t worry if other VAs are there
You may go to a networking event and find another Virtual Assistant there.
But that’s ok.
You’re not vying for the same clients. You’re looking for a good match, and the perfect client for you could be a walking nightmare for another VA. People work with people they like and Virtual Assistants all have different skillsets, experience and personalities.
I actually think it’s worth getting to know other VAs in your area. You can refer work to each other (if you’re busy or don’t undertake the requested task) and, as they understand the unique challenges VAs face, you can occasionally meet for coffee and bitch about difficult clients!
Don’t judge on appearances
A common mistake is reading a job title on a name badge and thinking the person won’t need your services and, therefore, isn’t worth talking to.
Even if this person may not directly need your services, they could know someone who does. I’ve actually had many conversations with people I had considered ‘unsuitable’ that led to collaborations and work.
You will probably see people at networking events do this to you and in addition to being short-sighted, it’s actually kinda horrible to see someone judge you in this way.
Follow up and arrange to meet
After you attend an event, enter any business cards into your email contact list with a note of where and when you met, check the contact’s website for social media links and then connect with them online.
The reason you want to connect on social media is so you can continue to build a relationship even if you don’t see each other again for ages.
Send a personalised follow-up email (it has to be personalised – never send a generic template!) to say how good it was to meet them and to ask if you can take them for a coffee to find out more about their business.
By arranging a quick coffee, you will have their sole attention and can start to form a more personal connection. Friday afternoons are perfect as the meetings won’t disrupt your work time too much and everyone is pretty much done by Friday lunchtime anyway!
Then follow up conversations
Once you’ve had a chat with someone and they’ve said they’d like you to help them, don’t just leave it hanging. Make sure you follow up and turn the convo into a contract.
Ping them a quick email the next day saying how lovely it was to meet them and how you’re super excited about helping them with (whatever it was they said they needed help with or wanted to achieve) and what your availability looks like.
Only send your contract (and Data Processing Agreement if needed) for signature when they come back saying they’d like to go ahead. It will look presumptuous if you send it before then.
If you don’t hear back and need to follow up again, just email a week or so later saying that you’re still really excited to help them achieve the result they want/headache they need to be removed but that your availability is becoming limited and they should let you know pretty quickly if they want to secure your time.
While the majority of physical networking events are simply a room full of people chatting, you may also attend a more formal event where you’re asked to deliver a short presentation.
Do not panic.
The key here is preparation and, as a VA, you were born prepared! The length of the presentation will vary but this is a spectacular opportunity to stand out by doing something different.
You could place a printed worksheet or questionnaire (with your contact details on, obvs) on each seat for members to work through during your talk or after they leave. During your presentation discuss why people use VAs and ask them to complete the doc by listing tasks they hate doing or ones that take an unreasonable amount of time.
You could even create an infographic in Canva – the sky is the limit so be as creative as you can. The aim is to engage the other members and get them thinking about their business challenges.
By doing something different, you’re not only demonstrating how you think and operate but also the creativity and resourcefulness you will bring to their business.
Advice for online networking
A dream for introverts, online networking should play a big part in your marketing activities. This section is shorter than the one above because the principle is pretty much the same as in-person networking.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many local networking groups simply moved their events online and the VAs who already had online networking as part of their marketing plan were less affected by the effects of the Coronavirus situation.
Also, online networking is actually perfect for Virtual Assistants because, well, they’re virtual and you can do it anywhere!
Where to find online networking events:
- Facebook – use the search bar.
- Twitter Hours.
- Local networking groups websites (they should say if they’ve moved online).
- Google! Just type ‘online networking events your town/county/state/country’.
As with physical events, your goal is to use your knowledge to help solve problems.
But don’t give away all of your knowledge – provide the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’.
Providing answers and suggestions shows that you know how to achieve a specific result but you’re not outlining the exact steps of how to do it.
Actually, even if you did explain exactly how to do something, most people will prefer to just pay you to do it for them anyway. My developer could tell me how to fix a problem in my website but I prefer to pay him because he knows what he’s doing, my time is better spent elsewhere and because the whole thing bores me to tears!
Make sure your website and social media is immaculate
When you chat to someone online it only takes a single click for them to check out your profile. Because prospects will do this, make sure your website and any social media profiles look professional and clearly provide the information a person would need in order to hire you.
It should go without saying that if you offer social media support, then your own social media profiles should be spectacular.
Don’t be pushy
You wouldn’t just walk up to someone at a physical networking event and ask for work and it’s the same with online events. You need to chat first and find out as much as you can about them, how their business runs and any problems they’re looking to overcome.
If we continue the dating analogy, don’t try to sleep with someone before you’ve even bought them dinner!
The aim is to show that you know how to solve a particular problem and that you’re available to help if they’d like to hire you to solve it.
Once a discussion starts, tell the business owner they can send you a direct message you if they’d like to take the conversation offline or out of the group.
Follow the rules
Some online events and groups have strict rules about what you can and can’t post, so make sure you read and follow them. People (amateurs) who simply spam the group with their business details instead of participating in conversations are particularly frowned upon.
I know that was a long post and it looks as if there is a lot to know and do, but there really isn’t.
Whether you’re networking in person or online, you can’t go wrong if you ask lots of questions and focus on solving problems and establishing relationships.
Maybe I should have just written that at the beginning, then this would have been a very short post!
Good luck out there and again, try not to think of networking or other business owners as scary because they’re not. You’re just talking to people – and I know you can do that.
Resources and homework
- Download my free networking info sheet to hand out or leave on the welcome table at events.
- Use some of the techniques in my blog post on what to do when a potential client doesn’t know what they need you for to create a worksheet to assist with your presentations.
- Read my article on how to write an elevator pitch so you can summarise what you do in a short sentence.
- Check that your business card is in tip-top shape and isn’t making people’s eyes bleed.
- Networking is just one marketing method. Sign up to my free mini-marketing course and discover many others.
- If your ideal client is somewhat niche and unlikely to be at your local networking meeting, I have a tried and tested way to get new clients that is so successful, I eventually stopped going to local networking events and focused on doing this instead.