Running a business is immersive and sometimes overwhelming. Consequently, networking is sometimes viewed as just an unnecessary hassle. But I know networking to be an indispensable business tool that allows the formation of long-term and mutually beneficial relationships. These relationships can raise your profile, boost business, enable collaborations and turn out to be lifelines when times get tough.
Nonetheless, the idea of networking can seem unnatural and intimidating (like trying to make friends on the first day of school, but with higher stakes). This fear can be easily overcome, however, through practice – the more you work at honing your networking skills, the more natural it will become. Here are some tips on how to develop your business network and build long-standing, valuable relationships.
Before you start
Before you attend a networking event, you need to have a plan. You must be certain of the skill sets and potential connections that you are able to offer: think about how you will be able to help someone. Furthermore, you should have a solid idea in advance of any event of the sorts of people you are looking to meet.
Secondly, it is important that you are visible. By that I mean developing a social media presence – LinkedIn and Twitter particularly – and making contact with key people via social media. This will ensure that you aren’t an entirely unknown entity when you start attending networking events. Being visible means that others know who you are, what you do, who you know. This is essential.
Networking in action
When networking, you should always be thinking about how you can be useful to others. Remember that these relationships must be mutually beneficial. Ultimately, if you can become the person that people turn to for advice or help or contacts, they are far more likely to help you in any way they can when the time comes. Conversely, never ask someone you’ve just met or don’t have a long-standing relationship with for a favour. This will do nothing but damage your reputation.
Further, never dismiss someone at an event because you think they’re not important. You never know what that person’s speciality might be – they may turn out have a skill set that would be invaluable to you. Equally, you never know where that person’s career path may take them.
Similarly, whilst it is important to have a clear idea of who you need to speak to, try not to dismiss someone outside of your industry. It is important to have a diverse, as well as a large, network. If you only know people who are like you, your network becomes insular, stagnant and consequently limited. People outside of your industry may be able to help you in ways that hadn’t occurred to you. The more diverse your network is, the more likely you are to know people who are “connectors”, those who can put you into contact with people you may otherwise not have met.
Maintaining your network
After a networking event, remember to follow up on the promises you’ve made. If you’ve offered to help someone or email them, make sure that you do it.
Similarly, once you have established some long-standing relationships, don’t take them for granted. Maintain your network by sending your contacts an email, endorsing them on LinkedIn, making the odd call on their behalf, or sending a Thank You note. These small gestures go a long way to developing a strong business network. It is also worth considering that whilst business relationships are good, friendships are better. In a crisis, a contact may desert you; a friend will not.
Remember that networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships. You won’t get anything out of it if you aren’t prepared to help your contacts. And don’t just wait until you are asked – offer to help whenever you can. This may involve stocking someone’s product in your shop or putting someone up for a job or introducing contacts to people they should know.
Few successful entrepreneurs have ever made it to the top without a well-maintained, extensive and diverse network. Far from being non-essential fuss, networking is a business fundamental: remember that your network is both your lifeline and your magic password, with the ability to save you from a crisis or open doors.