Business networking is now an established route to market for SME business owners. Done well it can be the main way you can grow your business through consistent and sustainable quality referrals. Here are my thoughts of what are the key elements.
What business networking isn’t
Business networking is not about selling! It isn’t about collecting as many business cards as possible. Nor is it broadcasting to as many people as possible what you do hoping that business appear. Nor is it a numbers game.
What is it then and why do it?
If you want business networking to work for you as a way to grow your business then it is all about being interested in people. It’s about building relationships with the sort of people who you like (and they like you) and who know the sort of people you want to meet. It’s about motivating them to introduce you to those people and to give you the right business referrals.
Do it right and it will enable you to grow your business sustainably and consistently. First you need to be clear in your mind what you are trying to achieve. What are the results you want? You can only measure success if you know exactly what success looks like for you. Knowing this will also help you identify where to network. There are various reasons why people network. The main reason is to generate more business. Other reasons include finding suppliers, acquiring knowledge and identifying others to collaborate with.
It's a common misconception that networking is just about meeting people at events, and somehow business happens. It isn't like that - networking is about building relationships.
Bob Burg said "All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust."
I go further and say "All things being unequal, people still will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust."
Learning point 1 – business networking is all about building relationships
You need to get the other person to know, like and trust you. They need to find you interesting and attractive. So how do you do that then?
For the vast majority of people the most important topic of conversation is themselves. So make it your job to find out what motivates them, what their challenges are. Ask open questions, ones starting ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘who’, to find out what makes them tick. Then try and find a way to help them. It may be sending them a relevant article or connecting them to one of your contacts. But the key point is that you must be interested in them.
Dale Carnegie said “You can close more business in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.” But you have to mean it!
Learning point 2 – be interested in other people
Before your start there are a few things you need to sort out:
Who is your target market?
Exactly what sort of clients are you looking for? You have to be crystal clear in your mind what your ideal client looks like. Think about business size, industry, geography and what sort of issues they might have. Paint a picture in your mind of your ideal client. Be as specific as possible.
At a business networking lunch I heard two marketing consultants telling the table what they did. One said that he covered the whole range of marketing services either outsourcing the marketing director function in small companies or doing project work in big companies. In short he professed to do anything marketing for anybody. The second marketing consultant said “I am a marketing consultant – I help solicitors win profitable new clients”. Which one was in demand afterwards – the latter of course.
Learning point 3 – be specific about your target market
Is your message clear?
Prepare to answer the question “what do you do?”. Your proposition needs to cover your target market, what you do (as briefly as possible) but more importantly what sort of outcomes you achieve. Be prepared to answer the question “So, how do you do that?” with a story. People remember stories.
Learning point 4 – reinforce what you do through stories
Who knows your target market?
This is really important and is one which most people don’t do. Take some time to think through what sort of business people might know your target market. These are the people you want to meet. They are the people you will build your inner network from.
Learning point 5 – establish an inner network
Where should I network?
So where do you ‘do’ your business networking? First start with people you know. Friends and family first (after all they presumably know and like you). What about your existing clients – presumably they rate you and your capability. Then find a networking group. There are lots: at different times of day, some are free and some chargeable, some structured and some unstructured. How to choose? It comes down to personal preference – does breakfast work for you? Can you fit lunchtime meetings in? Do you mind spending personal time in the evening networking? The key questions to ask yourself are “am I likely to find the sort of people who know my target market there?” and “do I feel comfortable in this environment”.
Learning point 6 – look for like minded people
Arrange contact meetings
You have started to meet people through your business networking. You have even identified the ones you might want in your inner network – the ones who know your target market. What then?
Try to get to know then better. Follow up the meeting with those on your shortlist and arrange to get together to find out more about each other. The purpose of this is to find out if there is a fit – do you like them and do they know the people you want to be introduced to. If the answer is yes then arrange a contact meeting and continue to build the relationship.
Learning point 7 – follow up is key
Motivate your inner network
Take time to develop the relationships with key members of your network. Go out of your way to connect them to key members of your network and introduce them to people who might benefit from their services. Become an advocate for them. And, guess what? What goes round comes round. People will eventually become advocates for you – and this is where the networking dividend really pays out! They will go out of their way to recommend your goods and services without being asked or expecting anything in return.
Learning point 8 – build your advocates
At NRG we have developed a business networking model based upon the above called the NRG Advocacy Model. We encourage our members to build their inner network from which they develop advocates for them and their business. Following this model you can grow your business through business networking sustainably and consistently.
To find out more experience an NRG business networking event. As Woody Allen said: “80% of success is showing up!”