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How to Leverage Virtual Networking for Future Success – Christel Wintels
The Agents of Change

How to Leverage Virtual Networking for Future Success – Christel Wintels

This past year has been hard for networking, especially those that rely on that and referrals for their own business’s survival. So how can you continue to network when you can go out there and plan meetups with large groups? Well, you take it 2D!

Christel Wintel is a professional networker that hasn’t let the pandemic stop her, as she has managed to successfully continue her referral group’s regular networking meetings thanks to Zoom and a little creativity. By following a few simple rules with a positive attitude and a willingness to dive into something a little bit different, you can still benefit from networking in the current world we’re living in.

Rich: My guest today has a mission, a mission to eliminate cold calling by helping business people create a lifelong referral network. As a franchise owner and Executive Director for BNI Golden Horseshoe, Ontario, she has spoken and written about business networking and building lifetime referrals through the philosophy of ‘givers gain’.

She writes a weekly networking nugget and is a contributing author to the bestselling Masters of Sales book. She has received outstanding achievement awards for both BNI, nationally and internationally, including Director of the Year in 2019. She has spoken about the art of networking across Canada and in the United States and Australia.

Most recently, she was interviewed by Merge Media on the topic of “Be a Connector, Not a Collector”.  Today we’re going to be diving into how to network during the pandemic with Christel Wintels. Christel, how are you doing?

Christel: I’m very well. How are you doing, Rich?

Rich: I’m doing well, too. I’m looking forward to diving into how to network in a 2D world. So Christel, have you always been a networker? Like, were you working the classrooms and playgrounds in Ontario as a kid?

Christel: I was not. If anything as a kid in Ontario, I don’t know if any of our listeners have ever had their parents accusing them of talking too much. I think every single report card that I ever got in elementary school said, “Christel talks too much”. So I’m pretty sure that that’s probably where it started.

Rich: All right. Makes sense. But at least you put those skills to the best way possible.

Christel: That’s what I tell my mom now. See, look, I’m making a living by talking too much.

Rich: So you’re a franchise owner and Executive Director for BNI. For those people out there not familiar with BNI, can you just explain what that is? And then talk about how BNI has pivoted since the pandemic took hold.

Christel:  For sure. So BNI is a referral generation business network, is the easiest way to describe it. There’s a whole lot of networks that are available out there for business people across the globe. What BNI – Business Network International – specializes in is business referral generation. So sometimes that’s the easiest way to understand what differentiates BNI from other networks that are out there.

And so prior to the first quarter of 2020, BNI was strictly a face to face networking organization. Our chapters met across the globe, happily went to chapter meetings every single week, met at great venues and ran the BNI marketing program. Then like everywhere, life changed on a dime very quickly. And we were able to in large part, because of the fact that we are a global network, we were able to in one week pivot all of our chapters into an online format. And so the chapters have been functioning in an online format in Ontario and I think for most of the United States as well, earlier in other parts of the world who were hit a little quicker or a little sooner than we were here in North America. Everyone is still in an online format as we come to the end of 2020.

Rich: Okay. So I think a lot of our listeners may either be BNI members or maybe were invited to a BNI session in the past. I know I have. So I remember that everybody would go around the room and kind of talk a little bit about their business, make some referrals to other people, one person would speak usually a little bit more at length about what they do or something that was important to them.

So now that we’ve moved to Zoom, and I use Zoom is an umbrella like Google for search, I’m using Zoom kind of as an umbrella term, but it usually is Zoom. What do BNI meetings look like? What’s the format like, how are you running them?

Christel: So I think comfortingly for our members, the structure has stayed virtually the same. And I use the word ‘virtually’, figuratively and literally. So the structure has stayed virtually the same because that’s one of the things that makes BNI different than some of the other networks that are available, is we have a very structured meeting. It’s a 90 minute meeting, you know what’s going to happen, when you’re going to speak.

So where things were a little bit gray at the beginning is we have sort of an informal, open networking period that starts off each one of our chapters for that first 15 minutes or so. And so it took us a little while to get a handle on that open networking thing, because one of the challenges – and I’m going to use Zoom as well – that’s the platform we use in BNI. One of the challenges with Zoom or with any other video conferencing is that if you have a group of people say 20-25, when one person talks it dominates the gallery. And that’s why the challenge is how do you have a little bit more of a chat conversation when it’s a business platform?

And so what we figured out over the first couple of months is we started to use breakout rooms. So what we did is we actually took those 20-25 people, and in that first 15 minutes we moved them into smaller” rooms”. If you will. And I say that in quotes, “rooms”, if you will, that allow them to chat a little bit more naturally. And I think that’s one of the big things that’s a challenge at some of the bigger networking events that are online.

Rich: Okay. And so this is why I first reached out when I first posted something on LinkedIn, because I belong to kind of a small group that’s like BNI in style. And we have been basically not meeting for a while just because we weren’t, and now we want to get back into it. And one of the recommendations is we do Zoom breakout rooms. And I broke out in hives. I think a lot of people think that I’m a really good networker, but the case is I’m really good when I know at least half of the room, not so much when I go to brand new events. And the idea of doing networking in a breakout room kind of terrified me.

So I want to get into some specifics around what individuals can do. But if we’re running a zoom and we’re doing the breakouts, I’d like to know a little bit about from the admin side of things. How do you decide who goes into what room and what kind of formats are you putting around that, so that people can get the most out of those networking times?

Christel:  So there are multiple approaches to this. So this is what we found works the best. There has to be somebody, no matter what the networking organization is, there has to be somebody who is as we refer to the “Zoom Ninja” or the “Zoom Master”. So they’ve got to be the one that runs the Zoom, they’ve got to be the host. They’ve got to be the ones that set up the breakout rooms and you can set those up in advance.

So Zoom has got great, great tutorials. So if you do ever move into that, have a look at the Zoom tutorials, they’re unbelievable. So I won’t spend any time talking about the technicalities of how that works, but one person needs to be the host, and then it helps if one or two additional people are the co-host. Especially if you’d like those co-hosts to do anything a little bit more structured in the breakout rooms. So you’ve got one person that’s got everybody lined up for the breakout rooms and then – ping – hits a button and you disappear into the cyber world for a few seconds. And then miraculously you’re back in a gallery with a fewer number of faces.

So what works for us is if we’re able to align people that might have similar target markets in business. So if you have a business to business target market, you’re looking to work with companies that maybe have, for easy discussion let’s call it 10 to 20 employees. We will try to put you with other companies that might be serving that same target market.

And so the other thing that I think makes it valuable is you got to have a little bit of a plan as to what you’re going to talk about. And for many of us who are face-to-face networkers, it’s funny. I thought it was very funny, Rich, when you said that I’m a good networker when I know half the room. And those of us who have been doing it for a long time, it’s not unreasonable for us to know most of the room. And that’s why people think we’re good networkers. We’ve been doing it a really long time.

Rich: That’s a good point.

Christel: Yeah. And so what happens is that we are able to connect people. We are able to get introduced to people when we don’t know somebody. And we lose a little bit of that in the online format. But what we can do is we can actually think about how we might like to talk to people, how we might like to connect with people, and what that’s going to look like. And if we give a little bit more focused attention, like say you wanted to meet, I don’t know, give me an example of a business that would be of interest for you to connect with.

Rich: Well, I would say, at flyte, we work with a wide variety of different companies. But for me, I like to get in front of owners or directors of marketing. And this year probably part of my goal would be to get in front of larger companies. We do a lot with small to medium sized business, so maybe some of the medium sized and larger companies. It almost doesn’t matter what they do as long as they are looking to generate leads online.

Christel: So if you think about the other businesses, so for a second take off a sales hat. And I’m going to invite all of our listeners to do that. Take off your sales hat for a second and think about the other businesses. They’re doing business with the clients you want. Right? Because that’s what referrals are based upon, referrals are based upon getting connected to the people who are also serving your target market, and that’s where you build that strategic referral. Right? So if you’re thinking of the other businesses that would be serving that target market, those are the people that you really want to have in your network. And when you have those people in your network, that’s how you start to build the synergies to build the high-quality relationships.

So when we’re out of BNI meeting, we have visitors in the room, other members, in the gallery. I’m going to call it the “gallery”, so that just keeps us in the virtual format in the gallery when we’re able to move those folks in to smaller breakout rooms and they serve a similar target market. There’s a few things that they can chat about. They can chat about what kind of networking has been working for them, particularly online. They can talk about marketing that’s been working for them. They can also talk about their value proposition with each other, because they’re able to build on that, to be able to see whether or not there might be a referral relationship. And that I think will work for any business networking approach. We’re looking for those connections. We just have to be so much more deliberate about them in an online format.

Rich: That’s a good point. And as I think about my own networking group, I guess it is similar. Like these are all people that are in B2B, serve different elements. We’ve got somebody in HR, we’ve got somebody in insurance, we’ve got somebody like me in marketing, so that makes a lot of sense.

All right. So if I find myself going into one of these breakout rooms, how can I prepare, Christel? What should my objectives be? What should I do to be in the best possible position to both get my connection out there, as well as to understand more about the people who I’m connecting to?

Christel: Okay, so I’m going to take a two pronged approach. One is the virtual approach. One is just a good networking approach.

So first in the virtual approach, use all the tools that are available to you. Use the chat, perhaps invite everyone to put their contact information in the chat. Those chats are savable in case our listeners don’t know, those chats are savable. You can save the chat and it goes into a notepad format, so you can still keep all that information. Use the name plate. So the name plates, you can list not a whole ton of information, but you certainly can list your first name. You don’t necessarily have to list your last name. If you’re going to be able to make connection with the person later, list your first name and list the business that you’re in. Perhaps you want to list your email there if you want people to easily be able to connect you.

One of the things that I encourage every single business person to use is the virtual background. If you’re going to go into networking events, build a virtual background that has your contact info on it. So that’s your billboard that is up behind you the entire time you are in front of those folks. So if you think about this, this gallery is a little TV commercial. All of a sudden there’s a lot of real estate behind us that we’re not using.

Rich: And of course the listeners cannot see this, but you have your BNI online virtual background. I have a messy living room or dining room table that I put all of my stuff on, and a hedgehog cage showing off in the background.

Christel: I thought it was a hamster cage.

Rich: Well that would be the obvious guess. Right? When you hear hooves, you don’t think zebra. When you see a little cage, you don’t think African hedgehog, and here we are.

Christel: That’s so much real estate. Folks just don’t think about it. There’s a whole bunch of real estate behind you. And if you had your logo on one side, Rich, and if you had your contact info on the other side, you wouldn’t have to worry. People can take screenshots, it’s got all the info right around you.

Rich: Sounds good. All right. So that’s some great stuff about setting the stage, but when I get into that group or into that breakout room, what are some things that I should keep in mind, or what do you recommend to your members?

Christel: So I think the same things work virtually in an online format as they do in a face-to-face format. What I frequently recommend to people, when you introduced me you said my mission is to eliminate cold calling. My mission is also to eliminate people thinking they can “get business”. And again, I’m using air quotes, “get business” at a networking event.

If I’m meeting you for the very first time, it’s incredibly audacious of me to think we can do business together. I don’t know you, I don’t know what you do. We don’t have credibility with each other. But here’s what I can figure out in a networking opportunity, is whether or not I think there’s an opportunity for us to do business together. Whether or not I think there might be some mutual interest or mutual benefit for us in continuing the relationship to learn more about each other. And that’s what networking events are for. So it’s determining kind of where people are sitting in their business, who their target markets are, some of the interesting things that they’re doing to keep their business strong.

While we’re in an online format, let’s face it, none of us have faced these circumstances in the past. And so whatever we might be doing to keep our businesses strong and thriving, that is a natural point of conversation. And so I know that you’ve been doing podcasts. This is what, your hundreds of show?

Rich:  Yeah. I think this would probably be about episode 372.

Christel: Right. So that means you’ve been doing this a while. You have a skillset that people are just starting to look into now, because they’ve never even thought about podcasting, right? So that gives you an area, not only of expertise, but something to share where they’re like, “You know what? I’d like to talk to you a little more about that.” I mean, you make this look very, very easy. I don’t know if it is this easy, but you certainly made it look easy for me.

And when we start to chat like that, as we would in a face-to-face networking event, that’s where we determine whether or not we like the person. And if you like the person, book another meeting. And in my opinion, that should be the objective of every networking event, is whether or not you want to book another meeting.

Rich: Let’s pull back a little bit. Now we’ve been talking about the Zoom, we’ve been talking about the breakout rooms. One of the tools that I feel can be used for networking during a pandemic is one we’ve been using all along, which is LinkedIn. So I’m kind of, and I know you’re active on LinkedIn like I am, so I’m kind of curious to know how do you identify good networking prospects on LinkedIn?

Christel: So it’s not by gosh and by golly.

Rich: You’re going to have to translate that for Americans.

Christel: It just doesn’t happen by chance by golly. So one of the responsibilities I have, it’s not even a responsibility because I love doing it, is I get to start brand new BNI chapters. We start them for a various number of reasons. And so I’m looking at my franchise, which is just the western suburbs of Toronto in Ontario. So I’m looking at my franchise thinking, you know what? We’re a little scarce here with a couple of chapters, were a little scarce here, so I’m going to pinpoint the geography. And I thought, all right, I can’t go there into that city because I’m not supposed to leave my house. But what I can do is I can figure out who I know on LinkedIn who is located in that city. So depending on what level of LinkedIn you use, and if you are using the Sales Navigator level, which we’ve just started to have a look at in my organization. So I’m a little slow to get on the train. I get it.

If you’re using Sales Navigator, this is a breeze. But it has to be as focused with LinkedIn, as one would be at a networking event. Who do you want to meet? Who do you want to connect with? And when you look at your connections, do you have a close degree of connection that can introduce you? And if you base it on those three things, you’re going to be able to meet and network on LinkedIn.

Rich: All right. So you’re definitely being very intentional as you prospect.

Christel: Yeah.

Rich: So, it’s very easy to make fun of people in the way that they try and connect on LinkedIn. I could probably write a book on all the cruddy invites I’ve gotten. So what techniques or tactics do you use to break that ice?  Maybe the first step is obviously just to connect with somebody. So are there things that you say or are there tactics that you use so that somebody is more likely to take you up on that invitation even just to connect on LinkedIn?

Christel: I will always, always, always go in on an introduction.

Rich: Really? See, it’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever in all my years of LinkedIn ever leveraged, then again, I’m not a professional networker, but I do have a big network there. I’ve never asked somebody to introduce me to somebody else. So that’s interesting.

Christel: And that’s how you eliminate it from a cold call to a warm call. Because when you ask somebody who is your first degree connection to introduce you to one of their first degree connections, they will likely do it depending on the level that they know you. Now it’s a little trickier on LinkedIn. Just because someone’s a first degree connection doesn’t mean that you necessarily know them.

Rich: Yeah, I’ve had that problem before.

Christel: Yeah. So there has to be a level of knowing each other when you ask for that introduction. But when you ask for that introduction in a virtual format, I’ll tell you it works like a dream.

Rich: All right. So let’s say whether you’ve gotten it through the first connection, whether you got it through an introduction, or just by reaching out to that person, they’ve accepted your invitation. I could write my second book on how many cruddy responses I’ve gotten at this moment in time. And it’s easy to make fun of people and the bots that they illegally use on LinkedIn for that next piece of conversation. How do you come across as engaging and not sleazy, or salesy, or spammy, or any of those other things that turn people off immediately?

Christel: Don’t try to sell them something. Let me share with you how recent and intense of an example I’ve had. So I attended an online LinkedIn virtual training that was put together by one of the BNI directors in the UK who is incredibly successful, inviting people to his BNI chapter through LinkedIn, and was before we went into a pandemic. So his name’s Al. Al very graciously had a training workshop online for the members in BNI Canada. So I sat through Al’s training session. It was about an hour, an hour and 10-15 minutes. And Al did all the do’s and don’ts. Don’t sell people. Don’t go into hard sell mode. Don’t hit them again and again and again, when they’ve asked to connect with you.

We get off that Zoom call and the first thing is I get about five people asking to connect with me on LinkedIn and they are all BNI members somewhere, but outside of Canada. One of those particular folks since that time, and it’s been about 11 days, has probably fired me off 20 messages on LinkedIn after I accepted her – and it’s a woman – her connection. She is trying to sell me something so hard. And it’s unbelievable. I have now blocked her, because she did exactly what he said not to do. Don’t sell stuff.

Rich: Okay. So let’s say that we agree with the ‘don’t sell stuff’, which I obviously agree with, but there’s this next level that seems more subtle. Because we’re always told give something away, give something away for free, whatever it is. I may just be too cynical at this point for my own good, but when somebody wants to offer me something free, I’ve read, Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion. I know they’re trying to build reciprocity with me and so my defenses go up. Maybe this is next level stuff, I’m not sure. But when I get offered, “Hey, I’d love to send you a free report”, or “Oh, I like to connect with people. When can I get time on your calendar?” Like, I don’t think people understand that giving away something free, like your time or report, still costs the other person time. So it’s not like you’re just giving something for free, like a new car say, which would definitely get me to connect with somebody. What do you do, like you specifically, to get that meeting where somebody doesn’t feel like they’re being manipulated or they’re obligated or anything else?

Christel: I’m a very big proponent of direct communication. So I have a very direct communication style, sometimes works in my favor, sometimes not so much. So it depends which way it goes. If the person approaches me and says to me, “Oh Christel, I saw that you were on this webinar and I’d like to talk with you more”. And if they leave it as talk with you more or connect with you more, I will respond by saying, “Where do you see the opportunity for collaboration between us?”

Because when I use words like “where do you see the opportunity for collaboration between us”, that eliminates the sale. I’m not looking to buy something from you. If there’s an opportunity for collaboration, if there’s information you’d like to ask me about you. Like you and I, I was referred to you through LinkedIn through one of our BNI members through LinkedIn. That’s how we got to this. You were looking to know somebody who’s doing more online networking every single day. And I think it’s cool that you’re not in my area. Right? Like since we’re online, we can talk to anybody in the world. And I love that. So we immediately had the opportunity to collaborate. There was no sell. You didn’t try selling me. I think I didn’t try to sell you.  We then booked a call. You were looking for a specific subject matter to interview. We then booked a call, decided that we could probably chat for a few minutes, and then we booked this. It can be that easy. There was nothing uncomfortable about that.

Rich: No, not at all. And so I guess my light bulb moment and what I’m sure every listener is going to be like, “Well duh, Rich”. But you know, I’m not always the brightest ball on the menorah or Christmas tree. As I go into LinkedIn and I have these goals for 2021 for my own sales. Because the bottom line is I run my own company, I’m a salesperson at heart. I should not be necessarily looking to connect with people who are going to buy from me. What I should be looking for are people who can expand my network, who I can help perhaps get in front of the clients that they need to get in front of. And likewise, they can bring me in as well.

So it’s really that almost, we’re not looking for the end user, we’re looking for the distributor, for lack of a better phrase. And that’s how we really create a powerful network that helps everybody.

Christel: And if you’ve got enough people in your network, whether you call it your center of influence, whether you call it contact sphere, whatever you want to call it. If you’ve got enough of those people who are connected to your desired target market at different levels, different departments, however big the company is, that’s what’s going to in my career because I’ve been doing this for 25 years, that’s what’s going to lead to high quality consistent referrals. Because you’re getting referred by a trusted colleague. Nothing in it for the colleague, they just want to refer you. They just want to keep the client happy. And when we’re all working together and keep our clients happy, no matter what the industry we’re in, that’s just a good way to build your business.

Rich: Okay. So I have a personal question for you. Personal for me, it’s not probably personal for you. Let’s call it a self-engaged question. So part of my goal in 2021 is to become better at networking and build my network for good. And so one of the things that some people have said is you should be able to explain who you want to get in front of and ask the same kind of questions for somebody else. Is that a little bit too bold faced, or is that more like that is the approach? Like, you should be clear and consistent and say,” I’m looking to get in front of this audience. Who are you looking to get in front of? How do you want me to describe you?” Like, are those the kinds of questions you ask when you realize you’ve got a networking ally?

Christel: Yep, absolutely. So our Director of Training here in the golden horseshoe region of BNI, she has a phrase that I think every member in our region knows by heart, which is, “specific is terrific”. And I know that it sounds a little bit like an easy phrase, “specific is terrific”. We have seen BNI members, and I’ve seen it myself in the last 25 years, when they actually name a company that they would like to get referred to. Because you know that we define our referrals on a weekly basis in BNI.  I have heard BNI members say, “I would like to be introduced to the head of the purchasing department at X Y Z Company.” And I don’t know exactly who the person’s name is, but I know someone who works in the department. I have seen in a meeting 20 minutes later someone in the room say, “I didn’t know you wanted to get introduced that person. He’s married to my cousin.” That’s how easily it can work when we are specific.

So the more specific we are, and as business people we know this, but as entrepreneurs we have fear of loss. If we can have a huge target market, we fear that we won’t be referred to enough people. But my experience in the referral marketing world is that when we are specific about exactly the kind of businesses we want to do business with, that’s when we get referred to the businesses. As opposed to any medium business owner is a good referral for me.

Rich: It sounds like what my other takeaways is. In my networking, I need to be both specific and intentional with what I’m looking to accomplish. And let’s just keep this conversation going for one more question. What are my responsibilities on the other side of things? When somebody comes to me and says, “Hey Rich, I’m looking to get in front of this type of person or this type”, what is my next role? Obviously there’s an implicit expectation that I am going to deliver referrals to the people in my group, so what are my next steps? If I find out that my networking ally wants to get in front of, I’ll go with bowling alley owners. You know, what, what are my next steps if I happen to know some bowling alley owners?

Christel: So my recommendation for the next step would be an intentional meeting between you and the person who wants to be referred. And you simply ask those questions. So you want to know my friend Mike, the bowling alley owners. So let’s talk about what I say to Mike to get you that introduction. How can you help Mike? What specifically is the value proposition? What is Mike going to be facing that I can open up a conversation to include you into that conversation, and suggest to him that you could offer a solution or a suggestion.

So you really have to know, not necessarily what the technical aspects of your referral partners business is, but what we do need to know is what the value proposition is and what the problems are they can solve. And therefore you can go to your friend Mike, and Mike says,”You know what, I’ve got trouble with the wax on the floors in the bowling alley. The wax is sticking. I got this new wax”. Well, you know what? I have a friend in my referral network and business network who is an expert in bowling alley floor wax. Wow. That is a unique business, right? So are you looking for a solution to this, Mike, bowling alley owner? And Mike says, “Well, yeah, I have to get a solution for this because the bowling balls are sticking to the floor”. And there you have the opportunity.

I mean, that’s a very light-hearted and prevalence recommendation or suggested, but there you have an opportunity to put the two of them together. Because you know what your referral partner does, you know how he or she can help. Perfect.

Rich: This has been great. Uh, both for the episode as well as me on a personal level, Christel. So thank you so much. If people want to connect with you in a non-sleazy, non-salesy, very collaborative way, where can they find you online?

Christel: I’m happy to connect on LinkedIn. So it’s Christel Wintels, and I know that you’ll have that posted as part of the podcast. It’s Christel Wintels on LinkedIn, it’s also Christel@bnigh.com, which is BNI golden horseshoe .com. If someone would like direct email if you do get in touch with me on LinkedIn, just to ensure that I give it full attention, please let me know that you heard about me or us on Rich’s podcast, so I know that there’s a connection there because then that makes me pay attention way more quickly.

Rich: I find the exact same thing. Christel, thank you so much. This has been fantastic, and I really appreciate your time and expertise with us today.

Christel: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Show Notes:

Christel Wintels is a professional networker that quickly learned to pivot her group’s format so that they can continue their networking and referrals. Connect with her on LinkedIn, and be sure to mention you heard her on this podcast.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.