There's an apocryphal story about the bright young salesman who chanced to meet an executive prospect for the first time in a Hawaiian swimming pool. Not one to let a possible account slip beneath the waves, the young salesman produced a laminated business card from his swimming trunks. Naturally, he got the work.
You may not be that zealous in trying to win business, but you can be sure of one thing: you probably spend a lot of your time networking, just like everybody else in business. And if you do it, you might as well try to be good at it.
Step one on the way to success is knowing what networking is. Stripped of the buzzwords that so often accompany it, networking is about connecting with other people, taking the necessary steps to build what will hopefully be lasting business relationships. Ideally, those relationships will be built on values like trust, reliance and mutual respect. Whether you describe it as cost-efficient marketing or plain old schmoozing, networking is anything but a casual and insincere exercise. It's the very serious practice of building your image and credibility as a businessperson and gaining additional work as a result. Work well done builds reputation, and so your business momentum increases.
Networking is also a two-way street where you may help others with referrals as often as you'll get new business. And while phone calls and e-mails can help foster networking relationships, it's ultimately about face-to-face personal contact. It's about doing business the old-fashioned way.
There's not necessarily any immediate payoff from networking. In fact, it's easy to convince yourself that you shouldn't make much effort, since tangible results are often elusive. That's a trap you shouldn't fall into. Like the sales mantra, "always be closing," you should "always be networking." Nurturing your network is an ongoing business that may take months or years to contribute to new or stronger business alliances between your company and others.
A consistent effort holds the promise of not only more business for you, but higher quality business. Over time, most referrals you get will likely be from your best customers. Because they're already highly satisfied with your work and value the relationship, they're more likely to refer other quality firms to you. There are collateral benefits, too. As business snowballs through referrals, there will be less need to spend time and money on advertising and marketing campaigns, not to mention fewer cold calls. And as you widen your circle of referrals, you'll not only generate more revenue, but possibly more interesting and challenging business opportunities.
These are tantalizing possibilities, but how do you know if you're networking effectively? Richard Serby, a veteran career counselor and head of the technical and scientific recruiting firm, GeoSearch, Inc., suggests you start by composing a list of everyone you know in your industry. Then do a second list of those you know in related fields. Once you've completed your lists, you should ask yourself the following questions: how long has it been since you contacted the people on your lists? When did you last have business or personal contact with them? Have you contacted people just to see how they're doing? For most small business owners, there will inevitably be a lot of unchecked names on both lists, so you should start to systematically plan who to contact and give yourself a reasonable deadline for doing so.
Who you actually contact is a key decision. Successful networking isn't about being indiscriminate. Everyone is not a worthwhile prospect. You need to look at your business and how you want it to grow before deciding who you should contact. In other words, start by defining your ideal customer and then go after the companies that come closest to matching the profile.
Networking opportunities can literally happen anywhere and any time, but there are obvious venues that you shouldn't overlook. Virtually every industry has its own association, complete with regular meetings, annual conventions, trade shows and committee systems. Most communities have chambers of commerce and one or more service clubs such as the Rotary or Kiwanis Clubs. Other community organizations and charities may present opportunities to meet people. Some veteran networkers also swear by less businesslike settings, including health clubs, country clubs, adult education classes and parties, in short, anywhere you can find someone new to talk to.
Again, however, the idea isn't to chat up everyone in the room or distribute business cards as if they were confetti. It's better to be selective and follow some elemental wisdom that will help you become a savvy networker:
- Be prepared
The Boy Scout motto applies in spades to networking. Always have business cards with you - remember the guy in the swimming pool - and try to do some basic research before you go to an event. If you can, find out which companies will be represented and the level of management that will be in attendance. Have a short, clear and simple explanation of your company's products or services - a commercial, in other words - and how they can benefit potential customers.
- Be selective
Try to choose gatherings where the attendees are likelier to be business prospects. Once there, restrict yourself to talking in greater depth with a limited number of people rather than trying to work the entire room. It's easier to follow up in a case where you've made a significant impression rather than a fleeting one. Use third parties to set up introductions.
There are people you already know well, or professionals you employ such as lawyers and accountants, who could provide useful introductions to potential new business contacts. Third parties can help you hone the list of prospects and, most of the time, they'll be glad to do their part in building a mutual network.
- Be restrained
In networking, as in life, most people are more interested in their own situation than they are in yours. In starting a business relationship, they're going to want to know what's in it for them. Knowing this, your best approach is to gently find out as much as you can about their business, their prospects and their problems. Be a good listener and wait until the appropriate time to tell your side of the story - that commercial again - and suggest ways your company might help theirs. That paves the way for a follow-up meeting.
Remember, making that initial contact when you're networking is like the proverbial first date. You may not kiss goodnight, but you could be laying the foundation for a beautiful and mutually rewarding friendship.
Although many of the basics of networking will strike you as solid common-sense business practice, there's plenty