As small business owners, one of the key sources of new business will be your network. That means that the more effective you are at the art of networking, the more likely you are to generate quality leads and increase your business and professional footprint. For those seeking new employment, the principles are the same but the target audience might differ. I offer these tips not as someone who considers themselves as an expert in the art of networking, but as someone who is constantly learning and evolving – someone who is reaching for the stars and developing his networking skills to get there.
First of all, I have to mention the best book that I have read on the subject and highly recommend that you go out and buy it and read it today: Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi (click the link to go directly to Amazon.ca and buy it now).
Let’s get started with the tips:
- Yes You HAVE To Network
Problem #1 for a lot of business owners is that they gain some success in their business and forget that networking is still important. You are only eating as long as you have a pipeline of new business and unless you like working 60+ hour weeks you simply can’t sell all of your business yourself. Developing a strong network will create new business through referrals that you don’t have to work for – work at building business relationships through your network and the people in your network will create business for you.
- Givers Gain
This isn’t just a neat slogan for the BNI networks, it’s the way things work. The world runs on Karma and the more you put out there the more you can expect in return. Remember that it isn’t a direct line for networking Karma either – expect to provide leads and introductions to many people in your network who will never provide them in return, but trust that the more you put out there the more that will come back through the unlikeliest of channels. When meeting a new person at a networking event focus on their business, their needs, and the types of referrals they need to build their business – it will pay off in the long term.
It’s all fine and dandy to learn to ask questions about the other person’s business and needs, but if you aren’t listening then you aren’t going to be able to help. When they are explaining their business to them ask questions, don’t worry about sounding stupid – the point here is to actually learn what they do and how they do it. When they talk about the types of referrals they want, listen carefully and think about the people you know – as you build your network you will find that there aren’t many people who you can’t help if you listen and think hard enough.
- Avoid the people you know
You aren’t being rude when you steer clear of the people you already know when you are out at a networking event. Some events (particularly Chamber of Commerce events) can be quite large and if you stick close to the people you know you are most certainly not meeting new faces that can help you to build your business. If someone you know gravitates toward you, suggest to them that you get together for a coffee sometime later to catch up and then politely excuse yourself. Your target is the people you don’t already know – you’re already helping those that you do.
- Don’t ‘drive by’
There is nothing I hate more at a big networking event than the guy that walks around the room quickly handing out his cards and never asking any questions. He might lighten his pocket by 50-60 cards in the night, but you can be certain that 99% of them wind up filed under ‘G’. If you can recognize the ‘givers gain’ mentality, then you understand that you can’t learn anything about anyone else’s business by this method. Your target in a big room should be to meet 2-3 people per hour and meet them well. You should know what they do, how they do it, who their target customers are, and how you can help them. Your focus is gettingcards, not distributing them (although it’s nice when someone you are talking to returns the favour). If you put enough out there, it will come back in spades.
- Choose your groups wisely
We all have time constraints – business has to get done, we need to spend time with our families, and there are only so many hours in one day. Given that you need to make sure you are picking your networking groups wisely. Choose to participate in groups that you can contribute the most to, not the ones that you can take the most away from. Believe it or not, even if your target is mid to large sized businesses you might be able to give more to a smaller business focused group – and those small business owners know people in the markets that you want to service (they are their clients, their friends, and their family). If you spend time where you can give the most, you stand to get the most in return.
- Know your limitations
If you really struggle with being an outgoing person and reaching out to new people in a room – never fear! If you have trouble in an open networking session like a Chamber of Commerce meeting (please work on this by practicing – they are more profitable) it doesn’t mean that you can’t network, it just means that you might need some structure. There are some great groups out there for people like you such as BNI for the business owner crowd or HAPPEN for the job seeking crowd. These groups have structured networking which means that over a period of weeks and through frequency, the people around you will get to know you and your business and have trust in you – even though you wouldn’t have approached them in a more open forum.
- Be personal
There is nothing wrong with sharing personal information about yourself or doing personal things for the people in your network. I’m a big fan of asking for birthdays (or finding them through other channels) and then recognizing the people I care about by wishing them a happy birthday either by phone or email. As much as we all make our birthdays out to be less than they are, we all feel touched when someone remembers. If you’re working on key accounts or relationships take it a step further – family birthdays. Believe me when I tell you that your most important relationship will be truly touched when you show up at their house with a teddy bear and a hand written card to wish their 5 year old son a happy birthday – you will be remembered!
I’d love to hear your own tips and tricks and I’d invite you to share them below in the comments. I’m currently working on a tip sheet that will be available through the Halton Region business centre office and if you have some good tips I’d love to include them.
Get out there and network, and I’ll see you there!
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.