Small business networking

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Small business networking

Define: Network
connect as or operate with a network.
interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.

What’s small business networking all about?

Most business owners have been approached at one time or another by a networking group, offering the opportunity to join them for lunch, coffee or drinks.

Many groups follow a similar system:

  • Bring a group of local business people together
  • Give everyone an opportunity to showcase their product or service (usually a very short 20 second intro going round the room)
  • Some have a talk or presentation by one of the group or a guest speaker
  • More time is then given to general networking – that’s right, you’re left to introduce yourself and chat to as many people as possible.

The perils of small business networking

When a group come together with no particular agenda, the danger is that your 2 hour networking event becomes an elaborate excuse to meet for a coffee and a natter. Don’t get me wrong, being sociable is fantastic, making new friends is even better, but at a networking event you are colleagues and professionals and you’re there to build business connections.

The aim for everyone at a networking event is to find new connections. Think of new customers as people you haven’t helped yet, how will your product or service benefit them? It’s a great way to talk about what you do as well, think about the benefits someone will feel when they use your product or service. Here’s an example for you, a mobile hairdresser could tell people – ‘I go to people’s homes to cut their hair’ or ‘I help busy professionals look their best without the need to spend hours in a salon’.

Know that you will have to speak to people you don’t know.  This is a tougher challenge for some but everyone can do it – no matter how shy they are.

Sounds scary – huh?

Just walking up to someone and saying ‘hi’ takes practice.  For me it felt like the most alien thing in the world to start with but you soon get used to it.  I have approached hundreds of people at networking events and never once has someone ignored me, been rude or rejected a simple ‘hello’. So, deep breath, remind yourself that you’re on a mission to find someone to help and go get them!

How to prepare for small business networking

Taking time to prepare has lots of benefits:

  • It builds your confidence – you’ll literally be ready for anything
  • You’ll have well thought out answers to bog standard questions, like ‘what do you do?’
  • You’ll have thought up a few ways to start a conversation with someone so you will never be lost for an opener
  • You’ll have a plan of who you want to talk to, so you can focus your time and energy.

Remember, you’re not going out for a social coffee with friends, you’re working.  You will only take away from networking what you are prepared to invest, and a little time spent preparing can deliver huge rewards.

Think of questions you will ask people, work hard on these, try to ask open questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no, that way the conversation will open up. Being interested in the other person, concentrate on what they’re saying and ask more questions.

Researching a networking event

A simple search for ‘local business networking events’ will give you places to start. It’s the networking group’s job to welcome you so don’t hesitate to send that email introducing yourself.

Be aware that some groups are restricted to a single person from each industry, so do a little digging into their current members and describe yourself in a different way if you need to (don’t lie, just be a little flexible with your job title).

Check out who else attends or is a member in your area – be honest, are these potential customers or people who could introduce you to new customers? If not, then keep looking.

If there are specific people you want to meet ask the host for an introduction, it’s their job to help people build connections so if they’re a good host they’ll be delighted to help.

Getting ready for your first networking event

You will be asked what you do, you know it will happen so be ready with a great answer.  Think about this one carefully, which sounds more interesting ‘I’m an accountant’ or ‘I help save people thousands of pounds in tax every year’? I know who I would want to keep talking to!

Think of ways to excuse yourself from the conversation ‘excuse me I’m just going to the loo’ is not one of them! Andy Bounds has some great tips for networking, getting the most from the right conversations and most importantly how to get away from people politely. I highly recommend his book, The Jelly Effect: How to Make Your Communication Stick.

The number 1 piece of advice I can give you is know what you want to take away and focus on getting it.  It’s very easy to turn up to an event, find someone to talk to, quickly discover that they’re not a great fit for you – either as a resource or potential customer, but somehow you still find yourself talking to them for the rest of the event.

Remember what you’re investing your time for and make sure you get it!

One last point…

Networking can be fun. I’ve made some great connections and friends who have widened my social and professional circles. I would recommend anyone to try it – just always remind yourself you’re there to work and there has to be a return for the time you invest.

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