Are you a small business owner who has trouble working the circuit? Don’t treat everybody like a potential deal and focus on building trusted relationships, advise these experts.
If networking has never yielded much in the way of opportunities for your business, perhaps it’s time to rethink your approach. Business speaker and author, Brad Burton, is founder of the UK’s largest joined-up business network, 4Networking. He says that many SMEs consider networking for new business as a transaction – going from A to B.
But it’s a mistake to approach it like a petrol station when you’re low on fuel. “You don’t say: ‘I need some sales, so I’m going to a networking event to top up’ – it doesn’t work like that,” he says. “It isn’t about turning up and expecting everyone to say: ‘Where’s my cheque book?’ You’ve got to commit for between six and 12 months to truly benefit from networking.”
Networking isn’t just about striking deals
Louize Clarke has seen first-hand the power of that “slow burn” approach to networking. She founded co-working space GROW@GreenPark two years ago. “Traditional networking still works for SMEs in industries where referral business happens. But if you’re a service-based company or start-up, it’s seen as a fairly outdated way of doing business,” she explains.
Instead of scouting a room for leads to convert to sales, Ms Clarke recommends looking for like-minded people with whom to collaborate. “Networking means finding people whom I can partner with on a specific piece of business. I found my web developer and PR and social media teams through connections at GROW. That’s a much better way to grow a small business.”
Business networking strategist and author Andy Lopata also advises caution around converting networking connections into deals. “Don’t do it,” he says. Instead, focus on moving into a trusted relationship, because someone who trusts you will buy from you further down the line if they need what you offer.
“If they don’t, they might refer you” he adds. “If they refer you four or five times, that’s exponentially more valuable than getting them to buy from you once.”
Consider the wider networks of a room
Differentiating between prospecting and networking can improve your efficiency in both arenas, adds Mr Lopata. “Treating everyone like a prospect doesn’t allow relationships to develop, so you miss the opportunity to grow a powerful network of trusted contacts.” But it’s also a disrespectful way to do business, he adds. “Your network might not become your clients, but the people they know might. It’s about selling ‘through’ your network, rather than ‘to’ it.”
Mr Burton agrees: “The real secret to networking is recognising that you’re not just talking to one person but, by extension, to everyone they know as well.”
How to follow-up
Poor follow-up is where most people fall down when it comes to networking, believes Stefan Thomas, author of Business Networking for Dummies. “The counter-intuitive way to turn networking into new business is to follow everyone up – not just those who are actively interested in buying,” he explains.
But don’t immediately go for the sale. “See if you can bring value to that relationship first,” says Mr Thomas. “I’m making sales now to people I’ve known for five or six years who have never bought anything before; you have to allow those relationships to develop at their own pace.”
If better networking means building real relationships, how can you be more confident about telling the story of your products and services without being inauthentic?
It’s a question of how you introduce that into conversation and make it relevant, says Mr Lopata. He recommends listening to other small business owners about their challenges and helping find solutions that meet their needs, rather than shoehorning in your offering.
“If you can clearly see how your proposition will help someone, then it’s easy to be confident about it,” he says. “It’s when you’re trying to sell a square peg into a round hole that you’ve got a problem. If you can’t find real confidence in what you offer, you shouldn’t be delivering it.”
Always prepare and never wing it
Networking opportunities might be less formal than they once were, but it stills pays to be prepared. “So many people approach networking by winging it, which wastes time and money,” says Mr Thomas. “The simplest way to feel more confident about networking is to think carefully about your message, and spend time preparing and rehearsing what you want to say.”
Finding the right opportunities can also make a big difference to how much networking benefits your business. Mr Burton advises asking your contacts which networking channels they find most useful, and Ms Clarke recommends researching events with exhibitors or speakers if you’re not keen on business small-talk.
“It’s about finding your tribe, and seeking out events where like-minded business people hang out,” she says. “We actively discourage people coming to GROW purely to sell, but plenty of other small business owners want networking environments where they can do just that, so find what’s right for you.”
What about when networking doesn’t work? “Google doesn’t work either – if you don’t ask it the right questions,” says Mr Burton. “Networking can work for any individual, but you’ve got to be prepared for it to take time.”
People can rush perfect networking opportunities, he explains. “The night I met my wife, I didn’t strategise that I was going to find a wife, or ask what the return on investment was on the transaction when we started chatting.” So how do you turn networking into deals? “The same way that someone you meet in a nightclub becomes your wife: give it time.”