This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. The topic for discussion at the February 20th Roundtable will be “Dealing With Challenging Customers”.
Does this sound familiar to you?
You recognize the value of professional networking for your business. However, you might be a little bit daunted by the idea of going out there and doing sales and professional networking for your business. But, you persevere and register for the next upcoming Chamber of Commerce professional networking happy hour.
You go to the event. You collect a bunch of business cards. You return back to your office and put them in a drawer never to be seen again.
This is a story told to me by business owners time and time again.
At the January Business Development Roundtable at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we discussed strategies and techniques for better professional networking. I believe many of us can agree that professional networking is tough; as is overcoming the reality that most often you have to be your own salesperson. You have to be likable. You have to be knowledgeable and willing to help people. So, it’s not easy. Over the years, among my many mistakes, I’ve learned some of the practical things you can do to be a successful small business owner through professional networking. Here are three suggestions for establishing an effective professional networking practice within your business for greater profitability and generally feeling good about your business and the community you’re building around it.
- Business cards, along with Facebook Page fans, LinkedIn connections, Instagram and Twitter followers, are not collectibles. These are hearts and minds that need to be won over requiring human connection, investment, and interest. Follow-through is the key to building these relationships. When you leave a professional networking event, take the next step of connecting online and offline. Send a LinkedIn connection-request, but also invite people you believe to be valuable new contacts to join you for coffee, or lunch. Get to know them as a person. These are the genuine connections that make you memorable and make them more likely to refer you new business when the appropriate opportunities arise.
- Next, make a list of five people you know and five people you don’t know. Then, for those you know, ask yourself whether or not you know what that person currently needs or wants the most in their professional or personal life. These can be customers, clients, vendors, colleagues, students, friends, and family members. For those who you don’t know, why is it that you would like to know them? As well, what is it that you believe is their most important goal currently for themselves professionally or personally?
Now, go out and find out those answers. By doing so, you will truly be developing connections with people who are important to you for professional reasons but approaching them in an angle that reaches their hearts and minds. For better or for worse, people are inherently self-interested when it comes to professional contacts. If you can find out what speaks to them and what they can get out of a relationship with you, that builds authority, credibility, value, and reciprocity in attaining or retaining new or existing business.
- Finally, meet people in peer networking opportunities as much as possible as opposed to professional networking opportunities and events. Go to social networking sites and other platforms, such as Meetup.com, in order to create social connections that lead to offline interactions. As much as digital interactions are important for establishing and even maintaining social connections in today’s workaday world, the importance of offline connection (even face-to-face video if in-person is not possible) is to creating human connection and the bonds that allow us to deepen relationships with people cannot be understated.
You’ll be best off if you create a system and use a tool to collect and manage the contacts and the latest time in which you have made contact with a professional or personal contact for professional networking purposes. It’s simply a way of managing what information you know about that person, when the last time is you contacted them, what information would you like to share with them on occasion in order to stay top-of-mind, and perhaps the next time you intend to make contact with that person. People get to know, like and trust you from the repetition of contact with them. So, you need to manage this like you do any other operation within your business. A friendly email with an article that you believe will be of interest to them on occasion can sometimes be enough to keep you top-of-mind. Making the effort to meet someone for coffee or tea a few times a year may be more effective. You need to figure that out based on the person or persons you are attempting to establish within your professional networking community.
With these few suggestions, you can have a stellar professional networking system that brings new and repeat referral business. Don’t simply collect business cards and online contacts, but connect with people genuinely. Find out what makes people tick, what they truly want and need, then go out and find ways to make that happen. Last, meet people in not only professional networking events but also peer networking environments to create lasting, sustainable relationships. This all requires systems and tools in place to support keeping track of your professional networking contacts and opportunities. And, remember, professional networking pays dividends in the long run; don’t expect immediate results.