The importance of networking more than just your business
Networking is one of the most important and effective activities for business growth, success and prosperity.
However, until more recently I found business networking to be hard work, awkward, unimaginative, often boring and usually unrewarding.
I would come away from networking events feeling disappointed. The whole experience seemed to transform my once buoyant spirit in to one of discouragement.
What makes networking so unproductive? If networking is one of the most important and effective of activities to grow business, why doesn’t it render winning results more readily?
It took some time until I realised the fruitless outcomes were largely to do with me. It was longer still before I was introduced to a different and better way to do networking.
So, what were my networking mistakes?
4 Networking Hazards to Avoid
First, my expectations were all wrong. While wrapped up in my business proposition I would go to events convinced that all I had to do was to tell others about my offer and to wait for orders to arrive. I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure you get the point.
Similarly, but not intentionally, my business was invariably the topic I would talk about. Others attending would speak about their businesses too. Unsurprisingly, attention spans between us were limited and there was a ‘switching off’. Interest in each of our business offerings would be lost to an indulgence in self-absorption.
Not so for everyone, however. I have learned that more seasoned networkers have discovered the art of making the person they are speaking with the object for discussion and not themselves or their own business. Dale Carnegie puts it well in his excellent book: How to Win Friends and Influence People: ‘Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours’.
I discovered a second mistake in my networking technique. Though not a natural salesperson, my enthusiasm would result in a pushy approach. Fellow networkers would retreat from me and look for conversation elsewhere in the room. I have since learned that far too many opportunities were lost to my Tigger-like exuberance.
Sharing our passion in the context of listening well to others is one thing. Evangelism about one’s own cause is quite another.
In my earlier days of networking I made a third mistake. I would attend events without a prepared and practised pitch. As foolish as it now seems it hadn't occurred to me to script my proposition. I knew my business and I knew the services on offer. All I needed was to get into conversation and simply explain.
Unfortunately, my attempt at a concise delivery became a lengthy drone. My content was all hither and thither until my ‘listener’ either interrupted me with something else far more interesting to say, or they simply walked away.
Having learned this lesson my next challenge was to segue my pitch into conversation as naturally as possible. With my proffer now ‘down pat’, I wanted to avoid being too urgent.
Still a further mistake was the underselling of myself and the services my business had on offer. I hated myself for it. I would come away from conversations knowing my fellow networker had been left unimpressed and I would regret yet another missed opportunity for my business.
7 benefits of networking
So, having gone through the struggle what have I learned and how have I improved? What is business networking really all about and what are the benefits? Can our business networking evolve into something even better - what I call 'Brand Networking'?
The most important of all the lessons I have learned about networking is that it is first about people and second about business.
When we network well we find ourselves engaging with real people, characters and personalities. Behind the smiles, the handshakes and the drive to push small pieces of card into each other’s hands are like-minded individuals with similar goals, shared experiences, aspirations and common problems. In short, we are all human.
When we begin with people first our focus is different. Before, when I was just blathering on about my business, as if it were the axis upon which the world turned, I wasn’t seeing people. Instead, I was on a quest to simply win business – and, if I am brutally honest, it was regardless of people.
It hadn't crossed my mind that the people to whom I was pitching could be nice people, genuine people, open to the possibility of discussion beyond the obvious, people with whom real friendships could be struck. And, let’s face it, friends are more likely to want each other to succeed and are just as likely to help each other to do so!
Once I had realised our networking is with people, and not name badges, I could see beyond the logos, the slogans and the contact details.
A business owner who knows their target market, their offer, their competitors and their challenges well will know their brand. It’s no accident.
A business brand will have a brand story. The brand story will underpin certain values that are important to the business owner. These values will inform and have an influence over the way business is conducted, the office environment, for example, the staff who are recruited, the tone of voice, customer service provision style and much more.
The business owner will carry and even inhabit their brand. Mindful networking will enable greater insight into the person who may buy from us, sell to us or refer us on to other contacts. This is why I prefer to use the term 'Brand Networking' to business networking. I have found that our networking is with much more than just a business and a business owner.
Networking presents us with the possibility of receiving and, of course, giving referrals. This is an invaluable source of business potential.
Referrals will come from individuals who know us and who have reason to trust us to deliver on the proposition the referring person will speak of on our behalf.
It is worth remembering the honour it is for us and our business to be referred.
Business Network International (BNI), an American franchised networking organisation is known as the world’s largest business referral system and is operational globally across 70 countries.
If you want to grow your business with referrals to genuine and ‘warmed’ business prospects, as a key part of your marketing strategy and mix, then BNI is something you would do well to consider. There’s almost certainly a group (or Chapter, as they are called) somewhere near you.
4. Your Network and your Net Worth
You may have heard it said, ‘Your network is your net worth’. It seems there’s a saying for anything and everything these days. Many of these precepts, some reliable, others not so, pop up over social media platforms. You may have seen them. This adage is also the title of Porter Gale’s 2013 book.
I see wisdom in the assertion.
It is important that we surround ourselves and our business with people from whom we can learn and who are willing to share experience with us that will help us to grow. It's for us to reciprocate when we can.
Regular networking will lead us to cross paths with a huge number of people, some of whom may become friends and important allies to us and to our business over time.
As important as it is to surround ourselves with people we can learn from, trust and perhaps emulate it is essential that we invest less in those who consume our time expensively and negatively.
5. Confidence Building
The more we are out and about meeting like-minded business owners, sharing ideas and learning from others more experienced than ourselves the more we will see our confidence grow. Even the most confident of folk don’t know everything and cannot do everything themselves.
We may have confidence in what we do, what we make and what we sell. Perhaps the same level of confidence is lacking when it comes to telling others.
Networking will put us in front of people who are in just the same place. Sometimes we will be with people who are more confident than ourselves and at other times less so. At the end of the day, however, when it comes to networking, we are all in a room trying to share who we are, what we do and what we have to offer. Networking is a great way to try fresh ideas, new presenting techniques and to grow in self-confidence.
6. A Raised Profile
We may have a great business idea with imaginative branding. Our website can be all ‘bells ‘n whistles’. Other elegant brand and marketing collateral can be available for distribution too. But, what’s it all for if no-one knows we exist?
The Chamber of Commerce provides a range of opportunities to present our business name, online footprint and proposition on their own website, social media, publications and at events. The Federation of Small Businesses offers similar openings.
Networking is perfect for raising the profile of any business.
BNI, as mentioned earlier is an ideal platform for getting our business known.
There’s space for mingling and for getting to know folk. And, depending on whether its early, middle or later in the day, there’s a breakfast, lunch or supper, during which there’s more time to listen and to share.
Business cards are distributed and during the meeting itself there’s a minute to explain to everyone who we are, to give the name of our business and to say a little about what our business offers. There’s chance to say specifically who we are looking for to sell our services or the services we would like to access for the purposes of making a referral. Occasionally, members are asked to give a ten-minute presentation about themselves and their business. And, if presenting skills need a polishing up there are regular training events to help with with this and more besides.
Only one person per profession or trade can be a member of any one Chapter, so direct competition is 'locked out'. However, while direct competitors are absent there are others within the Chapter in professions or trades that connect and with whom there can be collaboration. 'Power teams' can be formed.
BNI networking is a weekly activity. The regularity with which Chapter members meet cultivates a level of trust that isn't achievable in other forms of networking in quite the same way.
All networking, in whatever its form, contributes to the process of raising our profile and that of our business.
It’s important that we know what we don’t know – if you see what I mean. None of us can know everything. We all need the input of others at some point over some challenge or issue.
Networking opens us up to rooms of professionals from many industry and trade sectors. Chances are that as and when we need advice there will be someone within our networking sphere who can help. We ourselves are included in this – there’s bound to be advice we can give too.
At Future Point 4 Business we benefit from various networking groups. Personally, I have found my own BNI Chapter to be of enormous encouragement, inspiration and personal benefit. As well as the growing potential for business I have increased in confidence, in areas where confidence had diminished somewhat, and I have also made some great friends.
If you run a business and you’re not networking I wager you’re missing out on a wealth of opportunity, for your business and for yourself too!
Future Point 4 Business
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