At a recent local chamber of commerce networking event, I met three people from three different financial institutions. The only remarkable thing about them? They were unremarkable. I literally had nothing to remark about them. I was actually more taken with how alike they all seemed to be.

The pitches were almost exactly the same:

  • New branch!
  • Fantastic products & services!
  • We love serving the community!
  • Check out our special certificate rate!

The way they dressed was the same. How they interacted with people was the same. It was all very appropriate, safe and so very, very unremarkable.

These branch managers did nothing to advance their financial institution’s standing in my mind. They had nothing special to say about their organization. They seemed more concerned – even nervous – about what they thought they were supposed to say and sell than developing any sort of real connection with the people around them.

So in their nervousness they just defaulted to standard marketing messages, parroting what they’ve heard from their marketing department. The trouble is that message is meant to for mass media –  for selling – not for connecting. And connecting is the better goal for networking and actually leads to long-term relationships.

Yes, it’s easy and safe to be just another financial institution, hawking member ownership, community involvement and great rates to the people right in front of you. But what would happen if we took another approach? One that doesn’t add to the noise and in fact, let’s you rise above it?

Studies show people tend to stay with their financial institution for the relationships they’ve built. This is especially true in community banks and I’ve seen it first hand with my community bank clients. The bank might acquire another bank or be acquired itself, but clients stay through all of that turmoil because of the relationship they have with their local banker. If that person stayed through the merger, the customer stayed. If that person left, the client followed the banker to their new employer.

Credit unions are in a great position to also develop relationships outside of the branch. It just doesn’t seem to be the standard mode of operation. My credit union clients have a much different philosophy about the roles branch managers and loan officers have in the community. They are encouraged to go to the occasional community or networking event, but it seems their approach is usually much more transactional than relational (“did you hear about our special rate?”). They seem more concerned about getting back to the branch as quickly as possible than about building relationships out in the community.


But as the community banks have shown us, long-term loyalty has many benefits. It’s high time credit unions encourage truly connecting outside of the branch.

Networking’s Fertile Fields

When it comes to networking, people dread coming across as salesy. They don’t like feeling like they’ve just forced their message on anyone and everyone in their path. In fact in a study from “Administrative Science Quarterly,” participants actually use the word “gross” when it comes to networking. Yet those same participants recognize how crucial networking is to their business and career growth.

What if there’s a way to have a more positive experience while still reaping the benefits? What if we focus on creating long-term connections instead of short-term sales?

Let’s take a look at with a farmer’s frame of mind. Think of networking as growing a sustainable orchard, one which will benefit the community, not just the farmer, and do so for many years.

And wouldn’t it be fantastic for your branch managers and other representatives to actually strengthen the community as well as the credit union?

So how can you encourage staff to connect, not sell? To nurture relationships while networking instead of pushing rates?

To enrich the soil, be hospitable

Odds are the person you’re meeting is not very comfortable at this networking thing either. They don’t know what to say or how to approach a stranger. Help them feel more comfortable with lots of smiles, open body language, inviting them to join a group or table you might be with – assume the mindset of being the host, even if you aren’t actually the host.

To sow the seeds, be curious

Not sure what to say? Ask questions instead! Have a few go-to questions ready as you come in to the event, then listen very closely to how they answer. Ask a follow-up question. Find something about their answer which intrigues you and ask yet another question. Some of my go-to questions:

  • What brought you here today?
  • How long have you lived in the area?
  • How long have you been in your current role?
  • What’s your favorite restaurant around here?

To water the saplings, be a connector

Once you’ve got a conversation going, listen for any challenges they might facing in their job or otherwise. See if you can connect them to someone who can help, someone going through a similar situation. Or someone who’s recently overcome that challenge and might have some tips. If it’s someone with a product or service to sell, that’s OK too! Think about being the connector and it’ll take the pressure off of your own ‘performance’ at these events.

To nurture the trees, be a supporter

Just like the sun makes trees grow, even when it’s hidden, you can be there for your new connections whether they see you or not. Come out from behind the clouds every so often to check in with them. See how they’re doing, send an article or meme that’s relevant to them, congratulate them on any milestones. Remember, this is about long-term relationships. I imagine they’ll be pleasantly surprised you are checking in every month or so – most networking introductions don’t go much past the first week. You are already doing something to help you and your organization stand out.

Enjoy the harvest and share with other

Before you know it, these relationships will bud out and bear fruit. This bounty could take many different shapes, from your new connection getting specific products & services at your credit union, to them referring others to you and your supportive nature. The time you’ve spent getting to know them and supporting their journey will help them, help you and your business, and help the community too! You’re building stronger connections in the community as you support others. They’ll be operating from a stronger position which then helps them support others.

So the next time you have the opportunity to attend a networking event approach it like a farmer would their field and you’ll bear fruit for years to come.