TIME. As much as we try and control it, measure it or waste it - it never stops. Think about it, how many conversations have you had with your peers or direct reports about ??how can we maximise billable time?'

I have a solution for you. Stop letting your fee earners go out networking without a purpose - it's a massive waste of billable chargeable time. But they do have a purpose when networking, I hear you cry - to go out and win work. Yes, we all do it - as the pipeline looks to be a bit patchy, the directive comes down from on high... everyone, even the trainees, need to go out networking and bring back work.

Mmmm. There are a couple of problems with this approach.
Firstly, have you actually trained your fee earners how to network?
Do they know that going out networking with the sole purpose of winning new clients is the quickest way to accumulate a pile of business cards and a CRM system full of names. Filling up your firm's database with names, is going to get you precisely nowhere - in fact, as you start marketing to these people (who have almost definitely not agreed to go onto your mailing list), they will only unsubscribe and resolve never to darken your door...

Are you focusing your fee earners on building up relationships with people who are in a position to provide you with a regular stream of referrals? Yes, introducers and gatekeepers to your target client. It's only when a relationship is formed - and that takes more than just one chance meeting and a cup of coffee later, will it lead to a steady stream of referrals. (You do encourage your fee earners to follow up, don't you?) And that assumes, that you have met the right person in the first place. Because relationships take time to build, networking is not a quick fix to mend your business development headaches. To be successful networking needs to be strategic, focused and seen as a long term investment in key relationships and partnerships.

Secondly, and this is a massive bugbear of mine. Have you discounted the possibilities of online networking - for example, using twitter, LinkedIn and dare I say it Facebook to enhance your mix of networking activities? If you have blocked access to these networking tools from your practice's IT systems, then guess what, you have stopped your fee earners being able to network from their desk. No longer is networking just about going out and meeting people. Using LinkedIn for just an hour a week, can be a really effective way of generating a steady stream of referrals from your network.

I would assume that most of your fee earners spent at least two to three hours, of either yours or their personal time, attending a face to face networking event. So, think how much time could be saved if your fee earners knew how to use LinkedIn as a referral generation tool, and were encouraged to use it to help maintain their network.
How much are you networking without a purpose?

This is the first in a series of columns from Heather Townsend, author of ??The Financial Times Guide To Business Networking' and a specialist in working with Accountants. Heather regularly blogs at Partnership Potential, and Joined Up Networking.

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