It’s not what you know but who you know – there’s truth in this business maxim. Knowing the “right” people – those who can help your business thrive – is the payoff from successful networking.
Most of us understand the importance of building a network. However, those that are making the most of this vital business resource take a systematic approach to nurturing their network and treat it as a regular business function alongside their other marketing and sales initiatives.
Networking is not about chatting with strangers, and it’s not just about finding new business. Instead, networking is seeking out people – current or former customers, old classmates, former work colleagues and friends – who can help you find new or better vendors, provide advice on business management, and yes, refer leads or even become customers. And, of course, networking means doing the same for them. The actual process of building relationships can actually be exciting because it consists of meeting people and talking about your business. At the same time you are learning about (and helping) other business owners.
Where the strategy component comes into play is in the preparation and follow-up. Once connections are made, it is important to make a commitment to nurturing the initial contact and keeping relationships productive.
These tips can help you to maximize the business-building value of your network.
Having a clear idea of what you want from your networking efforts will help you decide who should be part of your network. This prioritization will help you select events to attend as well. Chances are you will have many more opportunities to network than you have time for, so prioritizing is key.
Consider creating a networking action plan. Set realistic, measurable goals. These can include the number of events you hope to attend in a given time period, how many people you hope to speak to and the goals you hope to achieve from your efforts.
Choose Events Carefully
To determine which places to go to meet the people who will become part of your network, focus on depth over breadth.
Being active in a few organizations that relate to your goals will have more impact than attending a different event every night. Be sure, though, to allow for a little serendipity – impromptu encounters can become rewarding networking opportunities, since you never know who may turn out to be helpful.
Taking an interest in the people you hope to connect with is one of the best ways to prepare for an event. If you find several interesting prospects on an attendee list, for example, learn what you can about their company and the business issues they may be facing by skimming their company website and industry publications. Above all, listen and be interested in what people are saying. Interest and camaraderie can help to build a solid foundation for a relationship.
Fine Tune Your “Presentation”
When you network, people are going to ask about what you do. Create a business description that is concise, easy to understand and does not sound like a sales pitch. Once you’ve developed it, try it out on colleagues, friends, a neighbor, and others until it is as good as it can be. It might help to have a few brief examples of typical projects to help paint a clear picture of what you do.
Create A Follow-Up Plan
What makes for a valuable contact? Ideally, it is one that you can help and that can help you...with no strings attached. In other words, don’t think of yourself as a networker but as a problem-solver, and look for this same characteristic in the people you add to your network. Then start nurturing these valuable contacts. Quickly re-engage with the person – through a brief note referencing a point in your conversation, a quick phone call or an invitation to lunch – to build the foundation for a future relationship.
The Care and Feeding of Your Network
Making contacts is only the first step in networking. The challenge is cultivating and maintaining those relationships.
Record your contacts
You can’t stay in touch with someone if you don’t have them in your system. Immediately after an event, go through the contacts you’ve made and enter them in your contact database.
Nothing beats face-to-face contact for strengthening relationships. Call and invite your colleague for lunch, coffee or a round of golf. This kind of social interaction can help boost the business relationship.
Educate each other
Take time to understand the businesses of those in your network. And make sure that you educate them about what you do and for whom you do it. The more you understand the intricacies of each others’ businesses, the better able you are to share ideas and contacts, and contribute to each others’ growth.
Remember, you’re not going to be able to network with everyone you know. Prioritize your contacts. Get in touch often with those that can be most useful to you – they’re your inner circle. Call them for advice; alert them to a potential opportunity; pass along an article of interest. But don’t burn bridges – even if someone is no longer a useful business connection, check in now and then. They may be important down the road.
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