I’ve always been intrigued by B. F. Skinner’s experiments with pigeons to try to replicate the process of developing superstition. The experiment is remarkable in its simplicity. Basically, the pigeon is fed at completely random intervals. Neither the bird nor the person running the experiment have any control over when the pellet will drop. What ended up happening was the pigeons started associating whatever behavior they were doing at the time the food appeared with the fact that the food showed up at all. The pigeons would then continue to perform that behavior and, sure enough, sooner or later a pellet would appear.

Ironically, I think this explains some of the sales-oriented behavior we see at networking events.

A new networker chooses to focus on selling at the event. Maybe they took a class or maybe their boss told them to do it or maybe they just didn’t know any better. Now this practice probably didn’t work so well for everyone. In fact, a lot of folks probably either got discouraged and stopped attending events or they realized that they needed to come up with a different approach. Then there were the ones who “succeeded”.

They tried their sales technique at the event and, lo and behold, it worked! They made a sale and since they had the positive reinforcement, they continued to try the same behavior at every single event they attended from that point on. They go through a lot of failure and then, what do you know, it works again. They now have a behavior that will deliver sales to their doorstep. Hooray!

Of course, what’s more likely is that they are making those sales in spite of their polished sales technique. What’s actually happening is that they just happened to be chatting with someone who happened to need whatever widget they were selling. Of course, you can place yourself as strategically as possible, but in the end, it really is just chance that puts us next to someone who is ready to buy. Our sales techniques can sometimes even get in the way because those techniques often don’t encourage us to listen, but rather to sell.

So, assuming that things really are pretty random, the best thing to do is to put ourselves next to as many people as possible. The cool thing is that if we have a well-developed network, we don’t actually have to do this in person. Our network connections will do it for us. All we have to do is make more and more ambassadors/advocates/champions/friends and let the network do what it’s supposed to do.

So the next time you hear someone talking about heading out to the networking event to sell, tell them it’s better to flock together rather than succumb to the bird-brained sales superstition.

Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya