As Venus Winner in the Category Networker of the Year 2017 for Dorset, you may be forgiven for thinking that Networking has come easily to me.
Well you would be wrong.
My initial experience of networking was altogether diabolical. Some 18yrs ago when I commenced networking in my early 30’s I was the worst type of Networker; aggressive, salesy, pitching at every opportunity and pouncing on every one I met.
I’d come away feeling I’d done a good job but in so doing had alienated most of the room.
It took some time for the penny to drop as to why my calls were not being returned and my emails possibly confined to Junk, because no matter how passionate I was about my business, no one else was, and they certainly never called back.
Rooky mistakes! Thank God I learned, in time for it to not be too much of a disaster in my career.
I’ll never forget meeting a man some ten years later who was possibly even worse at networking than I had been; wet, clammy, limp handshake, invading my personal space, bad breath, possibly even stalking me and definitely at every networking event on the calendar. Indeed if I hadn’t met other likeminded ‘avoiders’ of this gentleman I may have possibly ceased attending some groups, due to his over-bearing presence.
So why network? What is the right balance and how can you avoid making my rooky mistakes?
Well let me tell you that that my first tip and one of the keys to good authentic networking is to ‘Be in it for the long haul.’
Most people tend to think that the ultimate purpose of networking is to generate new business by finding potential new business partners and obtaining word-of-mouth referrals, recommendations and introductions. However it is far more than that, it is relationship building, and that doesn’t happen overnight. So therefore if you are going to be attending a networking group regularly, you need to determine if this is the type of group you really want to join, is the timing right, what does it offer you? Whilst many of them do offer a free breakfast and guest attendance, don’t waste your time if the group you are attending is not the right fit. To be committed to a particular network you do need to identify if regular attendance is to your benefit.
Therefore my second tip is to ‘research your networks.’
Popping along to a trades club might not get you the rewards you are hoping for when you are, for example, a chiropodist. Of course it might, but it is a long shot. Approaching a WI or a Rotary club, might be a quicker link to your target audience. Indeed by thinking outside the box and attending a trade fair where by day two everyone’s feet hurt might be an even better win. You see the art of networking is in knowing your audience. Many a time I have seen individuals, delivering their sixty-seconds and totally missing the mark; pitching career services when they are talking to sole-traders, or a high end bespoke CRM system when they are addressing one-man bands.Rather it is about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people who WANT what you have to offer. For when you are interacting in an authentic way with your demographic audience they are already interested in your service, as you solve their problem. Suddenly you are not selling your chiropody service but enthusing about what you do, and Audrey tells John who tells Betty and so suddenly your diary is filled with clients and your networking has built relationships.
Style does play a lot in networking. You do need to be comfortable in your environment to be the most relaxed and best that you can be. Some business networks are formal with a sixty second pitch, inter-referrals and membership encouraged, some are purely speed networking where the intention is to ‘sell, sell, sell’. Other networking groups are based around socialising over a coffee or glass of wine and still others centred on personal development and training. Therefore research is the key.
When deciding which networking events to attend you need to consider what you want to get out of the occasion. For instance, formal sit-down dinners are good for in-depth conversations with people, so may be appropriate if you’re looking to find new business partners or affiliates. A business club meeting might feature an inspiring guest speaker or seminar, but not allow sufficient time for members to network. However they could have a policy of allowing members to give talks that could benefit you.
Maybe take a look at the network’s online directory and find someone you know who already attends the group and get their view. Be careful not to ask if your contact thinks this is the group for you, as inevitably they will. Instead, enquire what time they meet and how often, how many people regularly attend events, and how much is membership. Also enquire as to what types of sector and profession attend and indeed peruse their website. Then when you believe the group to be beneficial to your goals you need to bite the bullet and choose to attend one or two events as a guest before deciding whether to join. Find your customer and you will find your niche. You will inevitably have to step out of your comfort zone, but
My next tip is to ‘think outside the box’.
When and where can you network? Does it have to be at a formal networking event or can it be in the pub, café, restaurant, golf club or spa? Surely networking is all about YOU enthusing about your product WHEREVER you meet people, and ideally with your target audience. After all aren’t you mixing with people as part of your day-to-day life in your leisure pursuits as well as your work activities? In your social life, such as at parties and sporting events, at the school gates, in the pub, remember to keep a supply of your business cards with you at all times so that you are prepared if an informal networking opportunity presents itself.
Not all business owners network formally so you may need to be innovative in your approach and consider informal opportunities for meeting contacts, for example: While you are travelling or during conferences and training courses. In these less obvious types of networking group, it is imperative to be friendly, enjoy the company of other delegates, get to know the people you are speaking to and elicit what profession they are in. Natural collaborations will emerge from this type of interaction, so don’t be too hasty or pushy. If conversations don’t happen naturally then hold off from pushing your ideas, as it may annoy the other delegates and you could miss out on a great conference or course.
My final tip is to ‘utilise the many social media networks available.’
One of the more recent developments with the evolution of social media is now the whole phenomenon of online networking. Most Facebook networks allow you to join their ‘group’ or ‘page’ once you have attended an initial meeting. This is an added benefit and a great way to maintain connections. But some do require you to submit your e-mail address, name and business details. Many are free to join and you can use the network to browse other members’ details, join discussion groups in your sector and send messages to your contacts. Social networking sites such as Facebook, (www.facebook.com ) Twitter (www.twitter.com ) and Linked-In (www.Linkedin.com) are the most popular sites used for online business networking. They help people and other businesses to find information about your business and are useful if you are looking for new contacts or partnerships.
Blogs and discussion forums have also become an important method of communicating online. By setting up a blog on your own website, you can encourage feedback and comments about your business and may attract interest from potential partners. You can also read and comment on other business blogs to stay up to date with key issues affecting your sector, promote your own products and services and exchange views with other business owners.
In deciding to utilise local networks to promote your business as one of your marketing tools, do allocate a sensible budget to do this effectively. Networking usually delivers far more return on investment than any other marketing tool in a business as it is about a targeted approach rather than a scatter-gun strategy. Both financially and in non-monetary terms, networking can deliver so much value that I cannot imagine why you would not commit a proportion of each week to this activity. If there is one thing that I could suggest that would guarantee to boost any business, it would be NETWORKING.
Thank you Venus for allowing me to share my business tips. Do look out for subsequent blogs.
Until next time. Au revoir. DC