– And how to make sure it isn’t!
As small business owners we know the importance of networking, right? It’s where we find clients, suppliers or people we can collaborate with.
Some of us invest significant amounts of time and money in networking activities, but we sometimes fall into traps that make that investment a waste.
- We sign up to a group that has regular meetings and then fail to attend them
- We commit to (and pay for) one-off events and then don’t go
- We join too many groups, and then can’t keep up with all the connections we make
- We go to meetings that aren’t attended by the people who can help us
- We arrive under-prepared and fail to talk coherently about our business
- We make good connections, but don’t then follow up on them
With a little forward planning, we can avoid many of these traps. So here are my top tips to make the most of your networking.
1. Plan your networking strategy
Make time to think strategically about what you want to get out of networking. Think about what you want to get from it. If that’s new clients, then where would they or people like them network?
Be realistic about the time you can commit, but remember that you always need to keep feeding the pipeline for the clients of tomorrow. So even when you are really busy, you still need to do your marketing, and networking is part of that. The ideal approach is often to commit to one or two regular weekly or monthly activities and then supplement those with relevant one-off activities.
Think about what suits your personality. Are you more comfortable building relationships slowly over time, in which case joining a group that meets regularly and where there is time to chat may be best, or are you happy to talk to anyone and make quick connections, meaning that one-off events are fine?
2. Get ready for each event before you go
Make sure you know the format for each event. For example:
- How many people will be there?
- Do you hand round business cards / flyers to every attendee or just to those you form a connection with?
- What’s the structure for the event? Is it free-flowing or do you need a 60 second (or longer) ‘pitch’ to deliver to the group?
Can you describe your business clearly and succinctly to anyone who asks you about it? Prepare and practise doing this.
What is your goal for the event? Be as specific as you can about this.
Is there a guest list you can see in advance? If so, who else is going, and who do you particularly want to meet?
3. Make the most of each event
Arrive on time and commit your attention fully to the event. Turn your mobile off unless there is something life-threatening or business critical going on (and if there is, maybe you shouldn’t be there?)
Depending on the format and size of the event, try to spend time with a number of different people. If there is someone you particularly want to speak to, aim to do this early on so you don’t get distracted.
Take an interest in the person you are talking to. Forming connections is a two-way process and nobody is going to warm to you if you simply give them a sales pitch without asking about them. Nor will you find out whether they are likely to be a possible client or supplier or to know someone who is.
Make sure you get contact details for anyone you want to follow up with. Exchange business cards if this hasn’t already been done, and as soon as possible afterwards make a note of the key points from your conversation.
If it’s a structured event with people taking turns to stand up and talk about their business, give each person your full attention and think creatively about how you could help them, as well as whether they can help you. Again make brief notes so you remember afterwards.
4. Do your follow up
It’s easy to get distracted and fail to follow up on those useful connections you have made. But then you have wasted your time.
So plan how you will ensure you follow up. It may work for you to sit down the day after each event to do this. Or perhaps you would prefer to do it once a week. A prompt response is best, whilst things are fresh in your mind, but if you have made notes at or immediately after the event then the follow up will be easier even if it has to wait a few days.
If you have promised a specific action (e.g. arranging a follow up meeting, making an introduction, providing useful info) then address that first. You may then find there are other people you want to stay connected to, but whom you don’t have an immediate reason to reach out to for a specific action. If so, social media is your friend. Connect to them on Linked In. Or find them or their business on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc and follow them there.
Feeling more confident now? Great, you’ll be able to make the most of your networking from now on.