Networking is important for anyone, but it’s even more important for the small-business owner because we can’t afford the massive advertising that big companies can. It’s a chance to let potential customers know who you are and that your business exists. When you’re at a meeting or a business event, you are your business. You never know when you’ll meet the golden goose or the great new client you’ve been waiting for. Always be ready and willing to network.
Try to attend as many local meetings or Chamber of Commerce events as you have time for. You probably won’t be able to afford to join all the different organizations that have meetings, so go as a guest of a member. Most organizations will let you attend one or more meetings before insisting that you join. If you’re really pressed for time or want to attend more than one meeting at the same time, just arrive early for the cocktail or mixer hour and discreetly leave before the formal meeting starts. That way, you can rush to the next meeting and network at the end of it.
You can network anywhere or anytime. Whether it’s on the golf course, in a supermarket, or waiting in line at a restaurant, be ready and willing to network. But meetings will offer the most opportunities for getting to know a wide variety of people. Here are some ideas to make the most of your networking time at a meeting:
- Arrive early enough to use the entire networking time. Other people who arrive early are there for the same reason, so take advantage of it and try to meet everyone new.
- Stop in the restroom when you first get to the meeting and check your appearance and your teeth.
- Dress professionally so that you look successful. People like to talk to those who look like winners, not losers.
- Walk around the area with a smile and assess who is there. Then you can plan the time to spend with each new person and still meet the rest.
- Eat conservatively; it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. Have a light snack before you go so you’re not starving.
- Keep drinks to a minimum. You’re there to network and meet new people, not to party. You don’t want to fall asleep during a boring meeting and embarrass yourself, and you certainly don’t want to be known as the drunken guy at the meeting.
- Briefly say hello to anyone you already know. Then go on and meet the ones you don’t know.
- Have a short introduction ready to introduce yourself. Ten to twelve seconds is long enough.
- Have a confident attitude but don’t be cocky; you want people to like you.
- Exchange business cards with people who can benefit you directly or indirectly.
- Have a pen (and a spare) ready so you can jot notes on the back of business cards for future reference.
- It’s best not to conduct business while networking. Set a future time, such as a lunch or an appointment.
- Keep an open ear and open mind for things you may be interested in. You are someone else’s networking target too.
- Talk to as many people as you can without cutting anyone short. You can always go back to an interesting person if there’s time left at the end.
- Don’t leave immediately when the function is over. Wait and meet the speakers and other VIPs.
- If you really like the group or organization, offer to speak at a future meeting.
- The next day, send a “nice to meet you” note to everyone from whom you have a business card. Enclose two of your own cards with the note and hand-address the envelope.
- Follow up as promised with all the people you said you would call. Do it within a week or at least send an email.
After you leave the meeting or function, you need to decide whether this is the type of function you want to attend regularly. You want to invest the time you have available where it will do you the most good. There are many choices of meetings available, so you can always try another if the first one isn’t a good fit.
Most newspapers publish a list in the Sunday or Monday edition with times and contact information. Another source of meetings is your local or nearby city business journal. Don’t be afraid to travel to another city within 100 miles to attend a new meeting; it may be well worth it. Try to budget as much of your time as you can for attending meetings, and you should see results over time.
Don’t forget about networking outside of meetings, too. A few years back, I was sitting in the waiting room of a quick oil-change place, talking to a lady with kids about our mailing lists. Her husband was in the computer business and eventually purchased one of our computer user lists. It sounds like an unlikely place to meet a business contact, but you never know who you’ll meet and when.
You can also make contacts that you can refer to friends or associates if your business can’t use them. Don’t underestimate the power of referring contacts to someone else who can help them. You will probably get a two- or three-fold return over time. Of course, you must be sure the company you’re referring to is reputable and will do a good job for them.
Networking should be automatic, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. A good networker will always seek out new people and introduce himself. You’ll notice at Chamber of Commerce or other business meetings that most people stand around or sit with people they know or are friends with. This doesn’t get them very far in the new-contacts game. The good networker will venture up to someone standing alone and start a conversation. The objective is to meet and get to know all the new people at any meeting before it’s over. If there’s lunch or dinner, good networkers will find a table where they know few (if any) people. By the end of the meal, they want to at least be familiar with everyone seated near them. Good networkers create an opportunity out of every encounter.
Don’t forget to network when you’re out of town and learn what’s happening elsewhere in your industry. Whether you’re on a vacation or a business trip, an hour or two of time investment can pay off in big rewards. Find some time to open the yellow pages and find other businesses like yours. Call or just go visit them, ask for the owner or manager, tell him who you are, and exchange ideas. Because you’re a non-competitor from another city, you can both open up to each other. You’re bound to find something you didn’t think of and can use as soon as you get back. Give your host some ideas that you’re using effectively in your business. Of course, invite him to stop in if he ever comes to your city. Always keep an
open-door policy for anyone coming to your business from out of town. Be a visitor and a good host—it’s a valuable learning experience.