Networking - Why, How and Where
By Charles Hopkins
Published 04/20/2006 | Entrepreneur
It's hard to be in business today, certainly in the professional services sector, without having heard the term 'networking'. Regarded by many as the Marmite of business, it is said that you either are a networker or you aren't. And if you think you aren't, you shouldn't even try to do it.
First of all, networking is essential to any business - whether offline or online. The business you get from personal recommendation will be some of the best business you ever do - they have pretty much made up their minds to use you before they even call you, and they are a lot less concerned with price. And it's not just for solicitors and accountants - when your pipes burst, how did you decide on a plumber to come out and fix it? Was it someone you had heard good things about before? Maybe you didn't know anyone, so you called a friend and asked if they knew a good plumber? Joe Bloggs Plumbers just won the business of fixing your pipes through networking.
A good way to look at it is not as 'networking' but as 'word-of-mouth marketing'. Because it is part of your marketing mix - how's your advertising? Local papers? Spot on radio? Good, good. PR? Interview on local news this week? Fantastic. How about promotions? Give aways? Offers? All sorted? Great stuff. Got a website? Optimised for the search engines? Lots of enquiries from it too? Brilliant.
And how about your word of mouth?
Not enough people concentrate on generating referrals and getting people to mention their business to others. Millions of pounds of business is done every year through referral and recommendation. If you're not getting any of it, you need to think long and hard about why not.
So you've got yourself to a networking event, you tell the people there about what you have to offer, and then ask if they want to buy it, right? Wrong! If you do this you have become the person at a networking event that everyone wants to avoid - the one handing out business cards like they're dealing a poker game; the one who asks you nothing and tells you more than you could ever want to know about what they do.
So how do you do it? The best way to network is to build trust, build relationships, to think about what you can do for the other people in the room before you think about what you might get. Be a 'people person', be genuinely interested in the people you meet at events. Great networkers want to help as well as get help - because they like helping others, not just because it might get them some business in the future.
Networking is about building a relationship that eventually leads to business being done, either between you and your new contact, between you and someone they recommend, or between them and someone you recommend. Don't discount that last one - they have to get something out of your relationship as well, otherwise it isn't a relationship. If you help them get more business, they will do the same for you - in fact they'll feel obliged to.
Where can I network?
The short answer is absolutely anywhere! Remember Joe Bloggs Plumbers, the guys who fixed your pipes? You don't find many plumbers at networking events, but they still get referrals. Networking happens when you talk to your colleagues at work, when you go to the pub with your friends, it happens when you overhear a conversation in the bus queue. Networking is about the impression you leave people with, and you make impressions all day, every day.
Of course you will make more effective contacts for referrals at specialised networking events, but remember there are several different kinds of events you can go to. Some of the most established are breakfast meetings, which usually start around 7.00am and finish around 9.00am. Meetings are usually weekly and the format is very focused and regimented. For those who like this format, there is a lot of business to be done, but it is an acquired taste. Try it out, but bear in mind whether or not you can keep up with the regular early mornings and very formal structure. Also, most breakfast meetings are restricted to one person from each business sector, so you are not as likely to meet people you can form alliances and joint ventures with, which is a very important, and often overlooked part of networking.
There are also several different kinds of event organised by groups such as local government organisations, such as race days, golf days and others. These can be a lot of fun, but are very often filled with people who are there for the golf rather than to do business, and you may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. Networking events are really a matter of preference and perspective, and you should go to as many events as you can at first, and then stick with the ones that work for you.
In summary, there is a simple and effective way to network that anyone can do:
1. Get to know people as people, not prospects.
2. Everything happens after a meeting, not during. Always, always follow up.
3. Give referrals as well as expect to receive them.
4. Keep in touch on a regular basis.
Best of luck with your networking!