If you run your own business, it’s critical that you are constantly meeting new people in your field. Whether they are prospective customers, partners, suppliers or even competitors, it’s important to form relationships and nurture them over time with regular contact.
But what if you find this an arduous and unpleasant task? There are many people who find networking a chore. Don’t fret; there are a number of different ways to build these relationships well. Here are five tips that may help.
1. Don’t Call it Networking
I know that’s controversial, but read on. Part of the problem with meeting new people in business circles is that your mind categorizes it as work. This leads to standard, boring questions and the sausage-machine process of shaking a new contact’s hand and then simply shoving your card in his or her hand. It doesn’t have to be like this.
‘Networking’ is an inflated name for the simple process of individuals meeting and sharing ideas. Those ideas may operate in a particular context – namely a common business purpose – but if you think of it as ‘networking’, then it becomes too pragmatic and formal, and people get turned off. Whenever you meet someone at conferences or events, enjoy them. Try to relate to the person you’re talking to. Find out what interests them; offer help if you can. Then follow up with sincerity. Call it ‘networking’ if you like, but the construction of a good network is really just the by-product of great conversations.
2. Be Strategic
Here’s a hypothesis – if you don’t have a plan for what to do, then it’s unlikely you’ll succeed in doing it and then you’ll feel even less like doing it in the future. And so it is with networking.
First, research your options. Make a list of conferences relevant to your field. Use Facebook, Meetup.com and LinkedIn to find groups. Follow thought leaders in your field and see what events they are going to.
Once you’ve done that, then you can decide on the most relevant and accessible things for you to attend. It’s unlikely you can go to everything, so you’ll have to make choices, and in most cases it will be a cost-benefit analysis.
Finally, observe your personal style. If conferences bore you silly, then don’t go for them. If you don’t like bars, then a networking event in Boat Quay on a Friday night might not be for you. Recognize and honor your preferences: find the events that suit you.
3. Open Well
Do you have trouble opening a conversation? The advantage of a business setting is that it’s quite okay to introduce yourself to someone and just say ‘hello’. Fortunately, it’s not like approaching a cute girl or guy at a bar. If you’re there in the same networking event with this person, then you already have something in common. Go and talk to them.
The simplest way to do this is to walk up to the person and smile. Offer your name and shake their hand, then let them do the same. When that’s passed, tell them – briefly – why you’re there and what business you’re in. Again, give them the chance to reply. The most important thing at this stage is to make it a conversation. Don’t deliver them an infomercial about you. It will turn them off and just increase your anxiety.
4. Be Engaging
You’ll be surprised, then, how easy it is with a bit of practice. Engage fully in the conversation. Ask good questions. Listen to what the person says with genuine interest and reply helpfully if you can. And watch out for body language. Try to face the person directly and look like you’re interested.
Look for ways where you can offer something useful to them, even early in the conversation. Questions such as: “Who is your ideal client?” or “So who are you hoping to meet here at this conference?” may be helpful in understanding a person’s job or goals at a conference or networking event. It is also helpful in creating an opportunity to exchange business cards. It doesn’t have to be the bland “Let’s stay in touch” statement. It can be, “Well, let me ask my supplier and see if they have any suggestions for you. I’ll try to get back to you by the end of the week.”
5. Use Technology to Stay Organized
After it all, the most important thing many people neglect to do well is a good follow-up. Be organised and see it through. Here’s where technology can help.
Using an effective business card management software such as Sansan may help you to quickly organize and integrate new contacts into your business. The cloud-based software enables you to scan your business cards and share them across the organisation. It also allows you to add notes and to back the data up accurately. The tedious task of sorting and saving business cards from your networking session can become an efficient affair.
Whatever you call it, the development of business contacts is of great importance to your company’s success. It’s easy to sit back and not do it. But with the right mindset and a few simple and practical techniques, you might find it’s not so difficult after all.