For many, the idea of schmoozing at functions or shaking hands at networking events seems like something which they really should not have to do. After all, if you do good work your services will automatically be selected on merit – won’t they?

If you were to ask a group of pharmacists what makes their clinical services different from other providers, practically all of them would include words such as professional, accessible and confidential in their list. This makes it difficult to distinguish one pharmacy from another when commissioning these services unless the decision maker knows the pharmacist personally, or they come highly recommended by someone they trust.

This is why networking skills are so crucial to pharmacists who want to secure contracts going forward. It is not enough to do good work. The right people need to know about it – not just from you but from others as well. In this article, you will find out how to make new contacts, develop relationships with existing contacts, make your first impression count and how to negotiate the best deal.

What is working?
Essentially networking has long been used as a marketing method which creates the opportunity for people and organisations to do business together. Like any other marketing method, unless it is done strategically with a clear outcome in mind it can end up being time consuming and costly with little reward. The working day is busy enough without wasting time unnecessarily.

Think of networking as ‘word of mouth marketing’. By creating a network of contacts who speak highly of you and your colleagues, you can be getting on with other things while other people are recommending you to others. When done strategically it is perfectly possible to build this network quickly by having a productive, relationship-building conversation with just one person each day.

Take a moment now and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is responsible for the commissioning decisions in my area?
  • Who influences their decision making process?
  • Who do I need to get to know?
  • Who do I already know who could connect me with them?
  • What message do I need to communicate to them?
  • How can I reach them at a time and place where they will be able to listen?

Don’t worry if the answers to some of those questions is “I don’t know”. The benefit of networking is that even without knowing exactly who you need to speak to, you can quickly find out through the people who you do know already. Once you are clearer about exactly who you need to be connected with, finding a path to them becomes much easier.

Developing existing contacts
It is estimated that the average person has around 100 contacts. That is if you include people who you interact with on a fairly regular basis, such as the receptionist at the gym and your hairdresser or barber. Each of the people you are connected to also has a network of around 100 contacts, so you can easily be connected to thousands through others. Studies carried out at Harvard University in 1967 proved the concept of ‘six degrees of separation’, that is, that everybody is on average six contacts away from everyone else.

Obviously some people have larger and stronger networks than others. A simple search on a social networking website will reveal individuals with hundreds if not thousands of contacts, although ne has to question how well they really know any of them. For your networking to be time efficient and effective it is important to identify the people in your network who are likely to have access to the people you need to reach or influence. These people could include colleagues, suppliers and GPs as well as friends, former colleagues and well connected local businesspeople. Many of these people would be willing to help you if only they knew that you needed an introduction or a positive word said at the right meeting. Reach out to them with a specific request and they are likely to be able to help you make a connection.

How to make new contacts and network

Aside from the contacts you already know, there are various opportunities for you to take the initiative and put yourself in the right place at the right time. These include:

  • Formal networking events and conferences;
  • Educational seminars and training courses;
  • Community events;
  • Social events.

By accepting invitations to charity fund raisers, local business meetings and dinner parties, you can quickly find that your list of contacts grows. Resist the temptation to avoid talking shop in a more social setting. If you are asked what you do, there is a format for an ‘elevator pitch’ which generates more interest than simply answering, “I’m a pharmacist”. The danger with labelling yourself without explaining further is that people pigeon-hole you in their mind and stop listening because they think they know what you do.

The elevator pitch
The idea behind the elevator pitch is that you have under a minute to explain what you do and to ask for an introduction. This is approximately the amount of time spent in a lift with someone. In reality, the elevator pitch is a starting point for a conversation rather than a speech to be recited in full without pause for breath. A typical elevator pitch might include:

  • he areas you cover;
  • The services you offer and the value you add to the community;
  • What evidence you’ve got for this (facts and figures, success stories);
  • The kinds of recommendations or introductions that you’re looking for.

You can adapt this to your own circumstances and make it more chatty, but these are the crucial points to cover in order to build your network. People need to know what you do to be able to help you.

How to make a good first impression
Whether you have been introduced by a mutual contact or you have made a connection yourself, your first impression will be a lasting one. From the moment you first meet someone, they are already making their mind up about you. Here are some pointers to be aware of:

  • Be clear about what you want to say - practise so you can be sure of covering everything
  • Be confident without appearing arrogant - make eye contact, speak clearly and smile occasionally. A fixed grin is as unnerving as a stony face.
  • Be knowledgeable – before your meeting read up on recent developments in the NHS. Pay particular attention to information directly relevant to the person you are meeting.
  • Look and sound the part – dress appropriately and in a way which reflects how you want them to perceive you.
  • Handshake – give a firm confident handshake.
  • Be genuinely interested in the other person – show that you are listening to what they are saying and ask questions.
  • Find a way to help them – what goes around comes around. If you can help them they will reciprocate.

Negotiating skills
Assuming you have networked yourself into a position where you can promote your services to the right person or people, the time will come when you have to negotiate. View this as a game. As with any other game there are certain rules:

  • Rule 1– ask for slightly more than you think you’ll get. It gives you room for manoeuvre and allows you to make small concessions rather than walking away if you don’t get what you want.
  • Rule 2 – prepare for ‘the flinch’. This is a visible recoil from what you have presented, often accompanied by a sharp intake of breath. It is a tactic designed to disarm you and make you feel that you have asked for too much. The counter attack to the flinch is to flinch back when they suggest their terms.
  • Rule 3 – aim for win-win. Try to figure out what the other party wants from the deal. You may have different priorities and you could both be able to get what you want.
  • Rule 4– go into the negotiations knowing the point at which you will walk away. Don’t just settle for a deal for the sake of making a deal. It may be too costly for your pharmacy to meet their terms and if it does not make sense to agree, walk away (assuming that you don’t want to take the hit on this service as a loss leader).

    In conclusion
    Networking can be a very valuable way of building up your contacts and securing lucrative contracts. It does not need to be time consuming, provided that you are clear about the results you want to see and who you need to be connected with.

    Hannah McNamara
    Business coach and author
    at HRM Global