Business is about building relationships. If you’ve gleaned anything from the stories we’ve shared, it should be about building trust with your customers and prospects, or successfully negotiating mutual benefits with your partners and suppliers.
But it doesn’t stop there. Ongoing and continuous networking is a crucial activity in the success of your business.
I often hear: “It’s easy for you, Ken, you do it all the time. But I’m not much of a schmoozer. I’m not good at networking.”
Part of the reason many people believe they aren’t good networkers may be ingrained in what they think networking is: selling. While there’s a certain degree of selling yourself in networking, it is not about creating a façade or persona. While there may be a feeling of “being on” or performing, the key to successful networking is grounded in authenticity.
In short, be yourself. Let the people you build relationships with do the selling.
Connections you build — like bridges you burn — inevitably have a way of coming back around. This is true whether it’s at the grocery store, at social gatherings, or, for example, at the company retreat or annual general meeting. They may not come around for some time, perhaps a year or two, but be patient.
Networking is planting seeds for future opportunities. The connection made today may be the referral that comes in 2022. Networking may require participating in environments outside traditional business hours. Early in my career I received some sage advice from a valued mentor. “Jenkins, you do your business from 8 am to 5 pm; you grow your business from 5 pm on.” This mentor was a master at networking and relationship building and recognized the value of being engaged in environments that extended his business day. What did it do for his career in business? He started his career sweeping floors for the multinational company he would eventually retire from as President & CEO.
To illustrate the value of networking, I will share a recent experience that underscores the opportunity. I attended a conference hosted by the LBMX organization that provides networking opportunities for buying groups. Here I was able to establish two contacts that have led to immediate opportunities for our business model. No selling or sales pitches. Purely an opportunity to integrate in an environment where like-minded individuals share best practices. The only investment is the commitment to get involved!
Growing anything requires the right touch, daily attention and routine. Let’s look at what’s needed to nurture your network:
- Do it! And often. Every day you should be expanding your network by making connections. These aren’t always the obvious ones, a partner at a conference, a prospect at a trade show. They may be the cashier at the local store or the owner of your favourite restaurant.
- Be a helper. In the past, I’ve written about how important it is to be a servant leader and to lead by addressing the needs of others. Genuine care for others is the sunlight under which all your connections and your business networks grow.
- Listen. It will please the more introverted to realize that building a strong network of contacts comes from asking questions and listening more than you speak. Learn about people, what makes them tick and what they need. Demonstrate your interest in them and learn how you can help.
- Join groups and associations. Whether you’re using social media, or in person, join associations and groups you have a genuine interest in. These may be business oriented – after all, we’re all interested in things that impact our daily lives. The connections you make with like-minded individuals and other entrepreneurs will pay dividends in the long run.
- Volunteer. Find charities or community organizations you believe in. As I’ve written about before, volunteerism is an amazing opportunity for entrepreneurs to make a difference. It’s also an excellent opportunity to make connections with other entrepreneurs who care about many of the same things you do.
- Respond. As with customers, responsiveness is crucial when networking. Responsiveness is important when your new contact reaches out, but it is even more important if or when they refer your business. Answering requests quickly shows your respect for them and the opportunity they bring you.
- Reciprocity. Follow the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated, and you will find that your efforts are typically returned in kind.
- Follow up! I’m frequently surprised how many people skip this important step in fostering a new business contact. Don’t forget once you’ve met someone you can help, or who can help you, to reach out and let them know you enjoyed meeting them.
Let me give you another example of why networking is important; it has a snowball effect. You never know from where new business is going to come.
True story about networking. Occasionally I need a transportation service for corporate events. For years, I’ve used a specific service for this. I text my contact regarding availability and typically have a response inside of five minutes.
English isn’t his first language, but he never fails to communicate promptly. He has many of the characteristics we’ve looked at: he’s helpful, responsive, and a good listener. He’s always there. I’ve recommended him to 20 or 30 business associates and friends. Through his authenticity and servant-leadership, my network has become his network. I’ve watched him grow from one SUV to multiple vehicles as his business expands almost exclusively on word-of-mouth and referrals. Networking works. He doesn’t sell me. He earns my trust though his commitment to addressing my needs.
Once you recognize that networking is just being your best self, making and strengthening ordinary connections with people, it all becomes easier. You can move from saying “I’m not a networker” to planting countless seeds to future partners, customers, referrals and ultimately, success.