There are many paths to small business success, but every road has at least one thing in common–networking. You can’t grow a company if people don’t know who you are and what you do. Whether you’re a networking novice or an experienced hand-shaker, you can always improve your business-bonding skills.
The importance of business networking should never be discounted. Networking ought to be part of your daily work and career-related endeavors. Having a network in place allows it to be there for when referrals, introductions, and career advancement are desired. Since you never know when you may need it, it would make sense to have an active network, even if it isn’t required today.
Some people associate networking with being pushy and overbearing. Additionally, some people tend to hide from networking because they don’t want to be labeled as this type of person. Networking is a two-way street; it is a way of getting to know someone better and finding ways you might be able to help them or discover common interests. Successful networkers display a sincere interest in their networking contacts and work hard to develop that relationship.
Networking is of critical importance. Regardless of your profession, networking is the fuel that accelerates success. Not only is it useful for learning directly from individuals you meet, but the benefits of association and growing your authority are just as powerful. Small businesses even acknowledge most of their business is generated from word of mouth marketing.
A recent study reported: 78% of startups agree networking is vital to their entrepreneurial endeavors. Networking is equally essential in career success for people who are employees. According to a 2016 report by LinkedIn, 85% of all jobs are filled via networking.
Joseph Barnard defines networking as consisting “of meeting and interacting with professional contacts to exchange information and help each other.” It does not always occur in a formal setting and there are a variety of forms networking takes; from handing out your business cards to speaking with someone at an industry event, each is considered networking.
Business networking involves making connections with all your stakeholders. This includes not only your customers or clients but other individuals who might refer business to you or mention your name in a positive way to people they know (as you should for them). It also involves making contacts with people who provide information or training, thus being a great way of finding reputable vendors to hire for your own business. Many people consider networking to be about “getting.” More important, is what you have to offer. Networking in business is about creating trusting relationships and friendships. April Maguire points out in her article, 11 Tips for Successful Business Networking, “A key part of effective networking is helping other businesspeople with their needs. That’s why you’ll find that the best networkers are often connectors who help others by referring customers, providing testimonials, or helping to promote events and other businesses in some way.”
Knowing networking is so important, what holds some of us back? The first thing that prevents us from building a strategic network is our mindset that networking is self-serving; the thought: “it’s all about me and I’m uncomfortable asking for help.” When we believe any attempt to establish relationships is only for our benefit, we are less inclined to pursue these conversations. A strong network, however, is built with mutually beneficial relationships where both parties benefit. In the process of getting to know someone, you understand how you can add value and help them; they are then willing to help you, too. Second, our comfort zone is to network with people we know and like; people with similar backgrounds and points-of-view. Research shows us this type of closed-network limits our exposure to people who can offer new connections and ideas.
Networking shouldn’t be a one-way street. If you come across an interesting article or a relevant job listing, share it with your network. The point of having a career network is to have resources who can help and you should reciprocate whenever you can. Whether you’re chatting at a chamber of commerce event or attending an informational meeting, it’s important to remember networking is about give-and-take. If you’re always the person asking for favors, the relationship is unlikely to last. For best results, look for opportunities to help your networking contacts prosper in their careers. The quality-oriented networker who is thoughtful and always tries to give more than he or she gets should have the advantage. Networking isn’t meant to be one-sided; it should provide value for both parties at some point. Look for ways to help your network and they’ll readily want to help you in return.
One option is to volunteer. Work for a non-profit group that resonates with you and you’ll likely make strong, lasting connections with other volunteers. Another route is to find skill-based volunteer (SBV) opportunities that let you use your professional skills in your volunteer efforts. When people in your network get stronger, you get stronger. By helping people in your network get stronger, they may be in a better position to be able to help you in the future. Also, per the law of reciprocity, people may be more motivated to return the favor.
Share your expertise and ideas. Share information. Promote your network’s work and accomplishments. Be a connector. Business transactions are always mutually beneficial. One person is buying a product or service because it will benefit them in some way, while one person is selling a product or service because they can profit. If you can connect two people you know who would benefit from knowing each other, you can help two people as well as improve the strength of your network.“If you consistently position yourself as a resource to others—fellow college alums, former colleagues—it will make you more valuable to your contacts, and, in turn, their contacts, as time goes by,” says Amanda Guisbond, an account executive in the Boston office of PR agency Shift Communications
Remember networking isn’t just what other people can do for you, but what you can do for them. Offering your guidance helps you build strong relationships by showing your connections you value them. You’ll also be one of the first people who come to mind when they can return the favor.
If someone asks for an informational interview or informal coffee chat, say yes if your schedule allows it. The guidance you give your connections could help take them to the next level and begin performing better.
In all situations, remember to both pay it back and pay it forward when someone has helped you.
When starting to network, you need to know where you should go to begin making connections. If you want to find networking events near you, but are unsure of where to start, take a look at websites that allow you to search for events in your local area, such as Meetup.com. While almost any activity or event can serve as a networking opportunity, small business owners should attend local business events. For example, your city’s chamber of commerce might host gatherings for people in your industry. Additionally, it’s worth going to meetings for professional associations and societies related to your field. If you belong to a professional association, attend a meeting or a mixer. You’ll find that many of the participants have the same goals you do and will be glad to exchange business cards. If your college alma mater holds alumni networking events (many schools hold them at locations across the country) be sure to attend.
There are many different types of networking events you can attend. When you and a new acquaintance seem attuned, take time to explore how you might help each other out. A lot of people figure that coming back from a networking opportunity with just one contact makes it a failure. However, one hour with one good contact makes it a success. Sometimes it isn’t about how you network, it’s simply about doing it regularly. Be willing to get out of your comfort zone and put yourself out there to connect with others, formally and informally, on a regular basis. Studies have proven you’ll be more successful if you do.
Interacting within your field provides opportunities for new partnerships, referrals, and new clients. Of course, networking isn’t just about building relationships. Meeting and interacting with other industry professionals also helps you to continue your education. While you might not have time to attend workshops or certification courses, grabbing coffee with a business connection helps you stay abreast of new developments and practices in your field. You can bring these trends back to your current company or use what you learned to better your chances of landing a new position.
The easiest way to meet people is through referrals. Stay near people you already know and who know the people you are looking to meet. Being introduced through them or joining in their conversations will very likely allow you to receive a warm welcome and introduction to the person you were looking to meet.
Networking provides you with new perspectives and ideas which can assist with your career; it gives you views and ideas that may not have occurred to you beforehand. It’s also useful to speak with people that work in different fields to you as they can provide entirely fresh perspectives. Therefore, it’s important to talk to a range of individuals and not just people that appear to be instantly valuable, such as, someone higher up in the same field as you.
Business cards are cheaper than they’ve ever been. You can get thousands of them for just a few dollars. However, this doesn’t mean you should hand them out like candy. Be frugal. If you just walk around handing these out to everyone, no one is going to take you or your business seriously.
Know What You Want
It’s difficult to achieve your goals when networking if you don’t start with a clear agenda. Before attending meetings or events, take the time to determine what your goals are for the experience. For example, you might want to: make new connections, donate your time to the community, or simply learn about the latest developments in your business or industry.
Just because your workday has ended doesn’t mean it’s time to stop networking. To expand your reach, you should try to chat with attendees at your health club or social club. You can even make business connections at your child’s school activities and sports events.
Be able to concisely and precisely explain what you do. It’s not enough to provide your clients with a great product or service. If you can’t articulate what it is you do, then you can’t hope to convey that information at networking events. Whether your goal is to generate referrals or simply build your virtual Rolodex for the future, you should take time to generate an elevator pitch that conveys what you do, for whom you do it, and why customers should choose you over your competition. This requires grabbing their attention in under a minute but waiting for an opening to do so.
If you want to overcome initial awkwardness and make a good first impression, consider opening with a compliment. For example, you might tell the person sitting next to you at a seminar that you like their shoes or tie. Similarly, asking a question gives contacts the chance to talk about themselves. Ask how they got into the field or what they think of a recent development affecting your industry.
Go where the people you want to meet hang out both online and offline. Interact with people and build rapport. Share valuable content and spark interesting conversations. Also, think about who else spends time with the people you want to meet and connect with them.
If you’re naturally shy, having success in networking can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are some strategies for overcoming introversion and making connections. First, consider brainstorming icebreakers before a networking event, so you don’t have to come up with ideas on the spot. Second, feel free to take a breather if you get overwhelmed–go to the restroom, take a walk, or grab a coffee. You can return to the room refreshed and ready to meet new people.
This networking tip is important because it truly is the key to success. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to networking,” says TopResume’s career advice expert, Amanda Augustine. “Different people are successful using different networking tactics.”
Introverts do not connect with people the same way extroverts do, so they shouldn’t try to match an extrovert’s networking style. It’s important to be comfortable and confident in how you reach out to others, so you always put that best foot forward
Confidence is an important characteristic for business because:
- It allows you to clearly communicate your views and ideas
- People will do business with someone who seems like they can deliver their promises
- It assists with decision-making, etc.
In addition, you can always go with someone who is more comfortable meeting new people. They can ease the discomfort of introductions and allow you the chance to enhance your network in a safe way.
Find a Reason to Follow Up
Don’t approach professional networking with a, “What can they do for me?” attitude. You should be doing the opposite. What can you do to help them or their business? Businesses want to work with people who are helpful.
Making connections is only half the battle; you also must take steps to keep the relationship going. You could forward a relevant article, invite them to a seminar or conference, even just send a friendly note during the holidays. People are more willing to help when they know who you are. Keep track of your career network somewhere. Whether it’s electronically or on paper, make sure you know who is who, where they work, and how to get in touch. “It’s a simple task, yet many professionals neglect this critical step in the networking process,” states Augustine.
As soon as possible after meeting someone new (either online or in-person) send a LinkedIn connection request and include a personalized message asking to stay in touch. Then be sure to reach out every so often with comments about posts, to share valuable career information, or simply to see how they are. The only two hard requirements are a willingness to stretch beyond your comfort zone and the intention to pay it forward by helping others when you can. The follow-up is one of the most important steps in professional networking. It’s not enough to meet someone. It’s not enough to grab their attention, either.
Think of everyone you’ve met in the last week. If you’re a businessperson, there is likely no way you can remember every name, face, and pitch, scheme, and scam you hear on a regular basis. Likewise, you can’t expect anyone else to remember. Follow up with people you connected with recently. Give them a week or two after the initial meeting and touch base. Bring a part of a conversation you had to help them remember.
Connecting with your network doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Reach out to your connections when it feels right, but make sure to touch base at least a few times each year. Remember to keep your messages authentic and concise to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship you both find value in.
Don’t be shy to ask for help. You are most successful at networking when you’re unafraid to ask for guidance. Whether it’s much-needed advice, mentorship, or resources, if you maintain a strong relationship with your network, then asking for support is to be expected. This will show them that you truly are interested in what they do and you have a much higher chance of learning more about their company.
Connections open doors, but relationships close deals. Networking is not just about exchanging business cards and connecting on LinkedIn. Networking is most valuable when long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships are formed. Relationships take time to build. Be patient. Stay in touch with people you like.
And remember, if no one knows what you’re doing, it’s like it never happened. Maintain regular and consistent communication with people you want to stay in touch with. Communicate via email, blogging, social networking, and of course, in-person.
Don’t Forget Social Media
Social media platforms are powerful tools for professional networking when used judiciously. But spam is distasteful no matter what the social medium du jour. So be selective, and use virtual contacts to supplement, not supplant face-to-face meetings. Social networking is deeply reinforced by an in-person connection.
Looking for a slogan to sum up quality networking? Consider “selectivity, discretion, mindfulness.” The best way to keep in touch is social media. Everyone is now using it for professional purposes. You would be wise to share and share often. Comment and engage to not just connect with the people you follow and have met, but to also interact with their followers. You never know who you might meet. One small exchange, in time, could snowball into a new job for you.
If you see any news related to a connection, such as he or she was promoted or started a new job, then say congratulations. Do this on the social network you found the news, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or in a cordial email. Instead of an impersonal “Congrats,” acknowledge his or her achievement and note the value he or she brings to the role. This makes your note more personal and engaging.
Keep in touch with your connections by sharing a piece of content they’d find useful, like a blog post, industry white paper, or local networking event. In your note, tell them what made you think of them and why it could provide value to their career. You can also Like, tag others, and comment on articles your connections are sharing on social media. This networking tip is a great way to show your peers you value their feedback while continuing to build your network.
Social media is also an effective way to get to know your contacts better without the pressure of meeting face-to-face. Look for like-minded contacts you would like to know better through all your social media channels. Try commenting on a link they post or responding to a comment they make; start a conversation with them and offer value in return. When you meet them in person, it will be easier to reference previous communications with them.
While social media and email can make it easy to touch base, connecting with someone in-person further helps maintain long-term relationships. In fact, according to a recent survey, 95% of employees say face-to-face meetings are essential for long-term business partnerships. Consider meeting a contact in-person to touch base or discuss something specific, such as a project he or she might be able to help with. You should limit these invites, however. Your contacts lead busy lives and their schedules might not always allow for in-person chats. If that’s the case, you can start an email thread or conduct a phone or Skype chat.
Quantity is a Turnoff
If you hand out business cards like you’re dealing poker, most folks will fold. “People don’t want to do business with a card thruster,” says Shel Horowitz, a marketing consultant in Hadley, Massachusetts. In fact,peed networking probably does not yield the best return on your investment of time. “Quantity networkers are forgettable individuals,” says Benjamin Akande, former dean of Webster University’s George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology. “If a guy is just looking for his next consulting contract, I don’t want to know him.”
Many people think networking means meeting as many people as possible; that’s not so. Making a few meaningful connections is often better than working an entire room. If you can have three or four deeper conversations, then you and the people you meet will be more likely to remember the interaction.
People do business with people they know, like, and trust. Companies don’t make decisions–people do. Your professional network can open doors for you that otherwise could not be opened. For better or for worse, it’s not just what you know or can do, it’s who you know, that’s important for career advancement and business development. You can also learn a tremendous amount from people in your network who have experience and expertise.
Build a Reputation
In a professional setting, people prefer to build business relationships with people they see as being valuable. By building a reputation as someone talented, helpful, and valuable, people will be more motivated to meet you and stay in touch with you. Let people know what you’re accomplishing and learning through blogging, emails, and conversations.
Helping people solve their problems is the easiest way to get your foot in the door or to land a new contract. Being known as a problem solver is a sure-fire way to be well known and well pursued in your industry.
Meet Lots of People!
The best way to make lucky things happen is to make a lot of things happen. Go outside. Manufacture serendipity. In summary, some ways to meet new people include: conferences, events, meetup.com, asking people you know for introductions, reaching out to people directly, personal interest groups, intramural sports leagues, classes and workshops, parties, happy hours, alumni associations, Twitter, and LinkedIn groups.
When you push yourself, in any area of life, you will inevitably face setbacks. In networking, you will face a lot of rejection. People will ignore your calls and emails. They will decline meeting invites and requests for introductions. Trying and failing is much better than not trying at all. At least when you try you have a chance to succeed. Learn from your rejections and grow stronger for when it happens again.
It is important to hear what people are saying and be empathetic to their professional problems. This isn’t just a networking skill, this is a business skill many people don’t have. When networking, be sure you don’t do all the talking. The key to being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. When you ask someone else a question or for an opinion, allow them to respond.
Listening is one of the most valuable, yet commonly overlooked, skills to have in networking and business. People love to talk about themselves and appreciate when you take a genuine interest in what they must stay. Listening will provide you an opportunity to learn about peoples’ challenges and get to know them better, which can ultimately lead to more productive professional relationships. Ask open-ended questions, be genuinely interested, and express interest and curiosity.
Building Personal Relationships
When developing new relationships at networking events, you should always value quality over quantity. Put away your business cards. Form genuine friendships with people you meet. It’s 10 times more valuable to develop connections with five quality people at an event than 50 “contacts” whose names you won’t remember. Pay attention—as if your life depended on it. This may come naturally for some people or be extremely difficult for others. In our smartphone era, paying attention is a demanded “skill” many of us lack. How many times have you spoken with someone who is constantly fidgeting, looking around, or interrupting your every sentence? By simply maintaining eye contact, listening attentively, and responding with relevant questions, you’re separating yourself from the rest of the pack and are well on your way to fostering a genuine relationship.
We all hope networking will lead to new business, but no one wants to give a high-pressure sales job. In many cases, the person you meet won’t be able to help you directly, but they may know someone who can. Tell the person how you can help them, but don’t pitch–that will come later.
Before you think about networking, remove the word “working” from your system. We hear people talking about putting on their “networking game,” and I can’t help but wonder how afterward they will rid themselves of inauthenticity. It’s likely the people you’re trying to reach get approached by dozens, if not hundreds, of people just like you and it’s not difficult for them to weed out the people who are “putting on a face.”
The best networking comes from genuine relationships, not a business card exchange. No matter whom you’re trying to build a relationship with, treating that person as a friend rather than a business contact will take you much further with the relationship. So, think about how you would approach a potential friend. Find something you have in common, keep it light, make jokes, and above all, show that you care.