Networking Best Practices

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”…. Read more »

The post Networking Best Practices appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.

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The Value of Local Small Business Partnerships

  • “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” — Henry Ford

Alexandria is home to countless diverse, dynamic and successful small businesses. This is the story of how two of small businesses partnered up and were able to create a unique professional development opportunity for many others.

by Reggie Holmes of Enthuse Creative and Beth Lawton of Canoe Media Services

We met at an Alexandria Small Business Development Center Small Business Roundtable in April 2014. The roundtable provides a monthly, facilitated topical forum that allows small business owners and leaders to gather and discuss a range of issues related to small businesses in the Alexandria area. It provides a free networking opportunity, as well.

Neither of us had attended an ASBDC roundtable event before, and we had no idea how valuable it would be or who we would meet.

Meeting for the first time ever at that roundtable was serendipitous. It turns out we lived in close proximity to each other on Alexandria’s west end, so we met at a local Starbucks and got to know each others’ businesses. Through our talk that day, we recognized the synergy of our industries and discussed how we could work together.

A desire we both had was to be recognized as thought leaders and resources in our respective industries. One way to do this is to provide workshops and presentations that add value to clients and the community. Doing a Lunch and Learn workshop had been on both of our minds, but having a partner at the ready pushed both of us forward quickly.

Our encounter at the ASBDC provided an opportunity for our organizations to connect and we were able to follow up on that with additional meetings, capitalizing on the opportunity to do together what we could not do independently — or at least not as easily or effectively or inexpensively. We needed to leverage each others’ knowledge, relationships and skill sets to make all the moving parts of the event come together smoothly. Important business connections would continue to play a huge role in getting the workshop from idea to reality.

As solopreneurs, finding partners to motivate you, bounce ideas off of and encourage you is critical to success. By motivating and relying on each other equally and focusing on each other’s strengths, we made huge progress in a short time with finding space and time, collaborating on marketing and outreach and preparing the presentation.

We were fortunate to have Jay Thomas from Alphagraphics print up marketing postcards for us — another person we met through ASBDC — and Mark Whitaker of Intelligent Office provided us with space and additional marketing support.

In the end, that room at Intelligent Office Alexandria was nearly filled to capacity. We had 17 small business owners and professionals attend, from several different industries and backgrounds, including real estate, consultants, finance and health services.

Some new relationships started in that room, too. Those have led to new collaborations and business opportunities for both of us, and the feeling of community in that room made us feel proud to be members of such a supportive business community in Alexandria.

It was in many ways a team effort, and a testament to the collaborative spirit of small businesses in this region. The Lunch and Learn was a very rewarding experience. One of the main lessons we learned is that working collaboratively and creatively, we strengthen the economy by strengthening small businesses in Alexandria and beyond. The workload was shared among many and so too was the benefit. The acronym TEAM, “Together Everyone Achieves More” is true in this case.

No, No… Not Me, Not Networking

Small Business Networking Shaking HandsResearch consistently shows that it is the entrepreneurs with the extensive network who are most likely to succeed. Yet many small business founders do little to grow and enhance – or even use – their network. How about you?

A real value of a good network is the connections it allows you to make to ideas, services and support you need to develop your business and succeed. You want people with technical and business expertise that complements yours. Add those with wide-ranging interests and specialists – both help you with the future. Plus friends for support and peers for inside info. Attending professional events, including those the Alexandria SBDC offers, is an easy way to meet new people who may be valuable in your network.

When you need to hire employees, your network can often provide referrals who match your needs far better than an ad or job posting. The trick here is to be specific about what you need, what results you expect from the new hire, and what your company offers and expects. Clearly communicate all that to your network and ask for help. The candidates you receive this way are generally better qualified in terms of the job and a better match in terms of your culture.

The same process is useful when you need outside services, advisors, or referrals to competent attorneys, CPAs, consultants, etc.

Network Effectively

Start by carving out a bit of time daily over two weeks to look the people you know already. Decide how to connect or re-connect. Will you use LinkedIn, another online tool, the phone, or what? Improve your most relevant connections first. What do you want and what will you give in return? Don’t forget your community or personal contacts, they offer a lot more than many think.

Networking is always a two-way street! ‘Feed’ your network before you need it.

Once your existing contacts are firmly in your mind and you have acted to reconnect as necessary, you may want to increase your network. Start by looking at the pile of business cards you probably have tucked in a desk drawer. Contact those who interest you and suggest a coffee or phone call to exchange information about your businesses. Look at the members of professional organizations you belong to and see who you want to meet. Always go to events with a plan for talking to new people to learn more about them – some will become good contacts. Look into local business groups as a way to grow your business and your network. Ask your current connections for referrals when you have a specific interest or need. This should become just a normal aspect of daily activities, not a special process.

Using Your Network

Pass information around on your network. This can be done easily online with short emails, links to relevant articles, and so on. But do not forget the human connection – pick up the phone or go out for coffee together. Introduce your connections to each other where you think they would be useful to each other. Share your knowledge. Offer your expertise when you can.

Then on a specific issue, like the hiring example above, you can ask individuals for information or assistance on an issue you are facing. Reach out – most folks are likely to help you if you are keeping up the connection already.

Networking does not work well when you only do it in need of something. Human connections need to be a regular part of your daily life. But it also does not need to be a big, time-consuming process. Keep it simple, keep at it – and help yourself and your organization succeed!

Patricia A. Frame is an experienced management consultant, HR executive, speaker, and author on human capital issues. She is known for her ability to address organizational goals and issues effectively and to create human resource management practices which support these goals without excessive administrivia. Patricia has advised executives and boards on a wide range of human capital and strategic planning issues. She has expertise in organization development, talent management, process restructuring, compensation, and training. She has worked with technology-based companies, government contractors, non-profits, associations, and retail operations. She advises small to mid-size organizations on ways to succeed and to help their employees thrive. Ms. Frame has given seminars for SBDC in recent years on the basic processes of HR management. Additionally, she generously provides one-to-one HR counseling once a month through Alexandria SBDC.

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