Parties Only Take You So Far

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I had high hopes for our office party.

It was a Valentine’s Day party. I wanted to make a big splash. I wanted a big crowd to show up. My anxiety about having only a handful of people in attendance was huge. I woke up in the middle of the night with a nightmarish image of me, a federal judge, and the Governor having an awkward conversation about why no one else had yet arrived. Apparently I’m prone to stress dreams.

Thirty minutes before the party was set to start, the food was ready and the office was decorated with red roses. The champagne was chilling and 100 rented glasses were arranged on the table. The strawberries were covered in chocolate. The cake was shaped like a heart. I even had a violinist set up in the corner preparing to play romantic songs.

The invitation start time approached and no one had yet arrived. My heart beats were irregular. The stress was eating at me and my arm pits were more than a little damp. I kept pulling Kleenex from the box to wipe my forehead. I snapped at one of my employees. Yeah, I was super anxious.

Then the first guest arrived. A few more showed up at the door, a few more came within minutes. I could breathe again.

Suddenly, I was distracted by talking to people as the violinist played in the background. I looked around after an hour and the room was full. It wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was respectable. The chatter was loud enough, the music drifted through the office space, people were laughing, talking, and engaged with one another. Good enough, I thought. My armpits started to dry.

I couldn’t remember my guests and vice-versa

That night, long after the party had ended, the champagne flutes had been returned, and the leftover strawberries had been eaten, I thought back on the conversations of the night.

I’d had an enjoyable evening. I’d interacted with most of the guests a bit.

But I hadn’t had any real conversations. I was busy flitting around being the host. I was greeting guests, pointing them toward the drinks, making the same shallow remarks over and over again. The guests were happy, so I was happy. But I hadn’t spent any time going deep in conversation. It was all surface level chit chat. It was good enough for a Valentine’s Day party.

Knowing people requires deeper interactions

The next day I worried that I hadn’t really become any closer to the party attendees. There were quite a few folks I didn’t really know. The next morning I still didn’t know them.

The guest list included some people I’d only met casually before. My plan was to use the party to get to know them better. I hoped they’d come to trust us enough to refer clients to us.

I had invited some local judges and elected officials I barely knew. They came because they’re the kind of people who show up anywhere they get an invite. I was glad to have them. They made our firm seem more significant and I really wanted warm bodies in attendance to fill out the crowd.

I invited some big name lawyers and some of them showed up. There’s a reason they have big names and it’s in part because they’re out and about meeting people and building relationships.

I also invited some local business and Chamber of Commerce folks and some of them attended. I was thrilled that they attended, as they were great at keeping the conversation going and many of them knew some of the other guests. They’re good networkers so they’re already well connected.

I figured I’d “work the room” and build connections with people I didn’t know very well yet. I’d get to know them better during the party. They’d like me enough to trust me with referrals and we’d get a business bump as a result of the party.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to talk to many of those folks other than to greet them and help them find the champagne. I didn’t feel more connected with any of the bigwigs at the end of the night.

Relationships take more than a party

My old friends enjoyed the party. They had a good time talking to others. We didn’t really have a chance to interact much, but that was okay with them. They understood that I was busy doing the business thing so they entertained themselves. I missed hanging out with more of my friends, but they were only there as a kind of human filler–they’d been warned that I’d be distracted.

My time was reserved, in theory, for building connections with the people I didn’t already know.

And yet, that didn’t really happen.

I was disappointed. I was hoping to level up with some of the elected folks, the business folks, and the big name lawyers. I assumed the party would allow me to jump into deeper relationships, with those people in particular. I was geared up for joining their inner circle.

I expected way too much out of a party.

I expected instant results, but instead, what I got was an itsy-bitsy step forward on a long journey.

Here’s the relationship formula

Building a real relationship takes more than a one-time party. Sure, the party was a good way to move the relationships a small step forward. It was a good way show up on the radar of the folks I’d invited, at least those who’d opted to attend. We now had a slightly better, but still weak, connection.

A real relationship takes more–a lot more. I hadn’t fully appreciated that until Valentine’s Day.

A real relationship takes:

  1. time
  2. proximity
  3. disclosure

This is the formula for turning acquaintances into friends. This is the formula for building the trust and comfort level which encourages people to become clients or refer clients to you. Without time plus proximity plus disclosure you aren’t likely to level up to a real relationship.

The formula is easy to apply. You spend more time together while getting to know one another. You go to lunch, you eat the meal, have coffee, and spend some time chatting, and you’re on your way. The more that each of you reveal the details of your lives, the closer you become.

Your time together involves learning about what each of you does for a living, your family situations, and your interests. Over time, as the relationship grows deeper, you come to know one another’s challenges and obstacles. You learn about the upsets, disappointments, and tragedies in each other’s lives. You become sources of advice for one another. You’re able to console one another in defeat and celebrate together in victory. Sometimes all of that happens in one lunch. But, nearly always, it requires much more time together.

The party is a doorway to the first coffee or lunch with someone you don’t yet know well. An attendee at your office open house is a great prospect for a follow-up get together. They’re likely ready to move the relationship forward.

They’re ready for the next step: the follow-up.

But, if you never follow up–if you don’t invest in the relationship immediately–then the party was a waste of time, effort, and money. All of your pre-party anxiety is wasted. You get nothing for your effort. You must apply the relationship formula, over time, or you’re not going to see the connection grow and the new business flow.

Systems are essential

Throwing a party, while not especially easy, is simpler to grasp than following up, spending time together, and getting to know each other. Follow-up requires a long-term commitment and consistent effort.

A party is one and done. Follow-up is never-ending.

Following up is all about forming a relationship and then nurturing it–indefinitely. It requires a systematic approach. It’s much like calling your mother. Most of us have a plan of some sort for keeping in touch with mom. When we drift off course we feel obligated to correct. Following up with your professional contacts requires the same level of diligence.

You may not have a tickler system for calling your mom (although that might be a good idea) but you absolutely need a tickler system for keeping in touch with your referral sources, and the folks you hope will become referral sources or clients. A systematic approach to reaching out to these folks, by phone, text, email, social media, or smoke signal, is critical. It’s essential that you develop a strategy that keeps each of these folks from falling out of touch. You’ve invested too much in getting the relationship started to let it come to an abrupt end.

It’s party time

Lots of lawyers I know are in the midst of throwing parties right now. I included throwing a party in the annual marketing plan I published earlier this year and I’m excited to see their efforts. I’m getting lots of party questions and some lawyers are sending me invitations (which I appreciate).

Parties are a great way to get new relationships started. But you’ve got to take the next step. You’re not going to get the referrals or new clients you’re seeking unless you build the essential connection, so that the new person will feel safe trusting you. Follow up, follow up, then follow up some more, or you’ll see your investment in the party go to waste.

I had high hopes for my party. I also have high hopes for yours. Do the follow-up and you’ll see new clients coming your way.

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