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Tips for Successful Business Networking
Whether you operate your own business independent of a larger corporation, you work in sales for someone else’s company or you work in direct sales, networking needs to be a part of your professional life. Let’s face it. Cold calling doesn’t work—unless you’re really okay with making one sale or fewer for every 100 calls. Besides, as my friend and fellow networker Don Barkley says, “It’s borderline unethical.” Those people on the other end of the phone don’t want to be interrupted during their workday any more than you do, and the chance that you’re calling a person that not only needs what you have to offer but also is willing to purchase it from a total stranger are low—lower than one percent to be more precise.
Networking, on the other hand, helps potential customers and clients put a face to your name. More than that, it allows you to build relationships, and relationships are places where sales incubate and grow. Networking requires time and follow-through, but done correctly, networking is the way for you to find strength in numbers—a strength much greater than the one percent of cold calls you might possibly be able to turn into sales.
Where to Network
Like all good work, good networking needs to start at home. Check out business networking sites such as LinkedIn and Meetup to find networking meetings in your area. Also, talk with other local business people to find out where and when they network. If your area has a local chapter of the Small Business Administration (SBA), learn about meetings they sponsor.
One of my mentors, Mary Moeller of Starrtek, told me as I was gearing up my business to only attend free networking meetings. Neither she nor I pay for networking meetings outside of a stray $20 here or there for a breakfast meeting hosted by the SBA or an afterhours event hosted by a local chamber of commerce. My company does pay for membership in one local chamber of commerce, and that membership has more than paid for itself due to the active nature of the chamber we chose.
Depending on the amount of networking your business requires, a paid networking group might be right for you. However, make sure you are making the most of free networking opportunities before you start racking up expenses associated with meeting new contacts. If the time comes that you wish to begin networking through fee-based organizations and meetups, do your research to make sure the group you choose is right for you. If you plan to join a chamber of commerce, make sure your local chamber is active and truly benefits existing members. If you are considering a fee-based, no-compete group, visit a time or two in order to assess how your business will fit into the existing network there.
How Much Networking
Every business person has to determine what amount of networking is most effective for their purposes. Once you get into networking circles, you’ll realize that you could easily spend all your time networking. That’s fantastic—as long as you make sure you have time to properly follow up with your new connections and get other work done as well.
For people in direct sales like my friend Cathy Weaver, author of the fantastic how-to book Networking on Steroids, more networking is better. She makes connections as often as possible and often attends more meetings in a single day than I do in a couple of weeks. However, she also makes sure to keep a balance between networking and following up with people. She spends time relationship-building as well as doing the work of training and selling—all parts of her successful business through Miracles with Water.
My company, Complete Picture Content, doesn’t work the way Cathy’s business does. I need to network in order to find new customers, but my partner, my writers and I need to spend a healthy amount of time meeting with clients and writing the content they order. Now that I have established a solid customer base, I limit my networking meetings and one-on-one meetups to two days a week. The rest of the time I split between billable client work and the mechanics of running a business.
If you invest time and effort in networking, you want it to be effective. In addition to finding networking groups and meetups that fit your business, your schedule and your personality, you need to work those networking events to your advantage. Show up looking great. Always carry plenty of professionally printed business cards with you. At each meeting, speak with at least three people you don’t know or want to get to know better.
You’re going to come home from most of these events with stacks of business cards. You need a way to manage all that contact information. I highly recommend getting an app for your smart phone that will scan and organize your contacts for you. You also need a good customer relationship management (CRM) system at the office. Some products are available that interface with mobile devices, and if you happen to meet a technology consultant at one of your networking meetings, be sure to pick their brain about good options for your business. They probably have one on their phone that they can show you on the spot.
Follow-up is critical. Some networkers try to contact every new acquaintance within a 24-hour period of the networking event. I find that to be a daunting task, so instead I prioritize my connections. Since my business is primarily web-based, I seek out web designers and online marketers. If I don’t have time to reach out to all the people I meet immediately after an event, I focus on those individuals with whom I am most interested in doing business.
I also make a point of attending a meetup regularly over a period of time. This helps in developing relationships. People get used to seeing me, and whether or not we’ve had a chance to talk in person, they begin to recognize me as the face of a local writing company. At the same time, I’m learning about them by paying attention to the way they interact with others in the group. By the time I call them to schedule a one-on-one meeting, we already have the basis for a relationship.
"Integrity is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can't get it back.— Anonymous
Do not overtax your relationships with other networkers by pitching your own product or services ad nauseum. Seriously, if all you ever do is pitch, pitch, pitch, you aren’t making the most of your networking opportunities. You will do far better to listen, listen, listen. In the first year of my business, I made sales on over 75 percent of my pitches. That number sounds impossible, but the reason for it is that I listen. Some people don’t need my services. Those people may, however, know someone who does. When I’m talking to a fellow networker, I take the time to learn what they need. Then I do my best to help. At the same time, many networkers who don’t need my services are able to help me find people who do.
I’ve met with more insurance agents than will ever give me quotes. In fact, I’m not planning on walking away from my current insurance agent before he retires, so no agent over the age of 30 is going to get direct business from me. But what they may get is a referral. Some insurance agents love working with seniors on Medicare supplements. Some enjoy helping new drivers get established with excellent auto coverage. Others like working with small business owners. My network of friends and acquaintances includes someone that each of these insurance agents can help, and therefore, my relationship with an insurance agent other than the one through whom I do my personal business can be of great benefit to them.
Know When to Exit
When networking, you will inevitably meet people who aren’t a good fit for your network of business associates. Maybe the individual has a sketchy sense of integrity. Maybe the product they have to offer is of a questionable nature to you. Maybe you just “don’t click.” Don’t stress. Move on. When you encounter these people, do yourself and others a favor—don’t waste your time or theirs.
As a new networker, these types of situations stressed me out tremendously, and I’ve reached out to Cathy Weaver for advice. This is exactly what she says, “Cut your losses and move on.” Another friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “Integrity is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back.” Don’t do business with someone you know to have a questionable sense of integrity. And don’t become the drama in your networking group. Gracefully exit the situation. Kindly but firmly let the individual know that you don’t think the two of you are a good match. Then hold your head high and move on to the next great connection. You’ve got this!