“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” The adage is especially true in an ever more competitive business world, where strong relationships can make a direct contribution to your bottom-line.
Entrepreneurs rarely make enough time to network and some even see going out for a coffee with a business associate as a waste of time. But, building a mutually beneficial business network should be a priority for every business owner, says Bonnie Elliot, Partner, BDC Consulting.
“You need to understand it as an investment, not a cost,” Elliot says. “Relationships are brutally important and extremely helpful.”
She says strong business relationships can lead to new customers, improved management skills and the discovery of new ideas.
Elliot recommends a few strategies to help entrepreneurs improve their networking skills.
1. Make a plan
A frequent mistake is to approach networking in an ad-hoc way, Elliot says. “It shouldn’t be an accident that you are attending an event. You’ve planned to be there and you have a specific goal—for example, to schedule 3 follow-up meetings.”
At the beginning of the year, when working on their business plan, entrepreneurs should also look at their networking strategy and answer questions such as: Who do I want to meet on a regular basis? With whom do I want to do business with this year?
At the end of the year, assess how you did in meeting your goals and how relationships with people in your network helped your business.
2. Get started
A rule of thumb is to ask around and see what type of activities your peers are attending. Workshops, conferences and trade shows are excellent ways of meeting new people and offer terrific opportunities for business development.
Another easy way is to check out the events scheduled by your local chamber of commerce.
3. Who’s afraid of social events?
People are uncomfortable at networking events because they feel like they’re “walking into a party without knowing anybody,” Elliot says. “The reassuring fact is that everybody else is in the same boat.”
Some things to remember at a networking event:
- Bring your business cards with you.
- Pay attention to your appearance because people will be looking at you from across the room. First impressions count for a lot.
- Prepare a brief “elevator speech,” introducing yourself and your business. This will be especially helpful if you’re nervous about meeting new people.
- Avoid the trap of spending your time with people you know. Make an effort to speak to new people.
- Focus on what you can do for others, not what they can do for you.
- Avoid hard selling. Be curious about what other people do. Ask questions.
- Don’t monopolize people’s time. Remember that everybody is there for the same reason as you: To network.
- When you leave a conversation, ask for their permission to contact them and suggest a goal for the meeting.
4. Connect with connectors
It’s better to have 10 mutually beneficial relationships in your database than 100 casual contacts.
Put time and effort into building relationships of trust with connectors and influencers in your industry, people that Elliot calls “the movers and the shakers.” Cultivate these connections and don’t take them for granted.
5. Get busy on social media
Social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook can be great networking tools, but entrepreneurs shouldn’t ignore the power of face-to-face interaction. “A mix between the two is excellent,” Elliot says.
6. Step out of your comfort zone
Connecting with peers in your own industry is the first step in a networking strategy, but it shouldn’t stop there.
“Entrepreneurs often have a tunnel vision, because they are so focused on their own business,” Elliot says. “Meeting people from outside your industry can bring a fresh perspective to your business.”