Perhaps you have heard of networking for your business. Maybe you have even tried going to a business networking breakfast, lunch, or mixer once or twice, and found that when you go to a networking group, you find the so-called business networking group is just a bunch of people trying to sell their products or services to you. However, real business networking does not have to be that way; at its best, business networking is a wonderful way to develop strong, lasting business relationships where both parties (and their clients) benefit.
When you attend a business networking meeting in a large group, the only goal for that meeting should be to get everyone's contact information and find out quickly what each person does. That sets up the process for the next step—to set up a time to meet over lunch or coffee, and learn in-depth about the person and their business. Unless you have an easily-explained business, or the person already has heard about you from colleagues, you should allow at least one hour for a one-to-one meeting. By doing so, you will have a better understanding of who they are looking for, what resources they need, and to get a clear idea in your mind of how you can help the other person. It is also wise to get a feel for what the other person is like: are they someone who, while a great resource, might turn someone off?
Ideally, the other person in your one-to-one meeting will do the same for you, taking the time to let you explain your products or services in depth, and getting to know you as a person. As you begin to explain your businesses to each other, the person you are meeting with may see opportunities for you, and you may be able to get ideas to help them.
Once you have a clear understanding of the other person's business, it's time to go to work to help that person. Search through your contacts; is there someone you know that can help the other person? Do you have a client or friend who is looking for the product or service they provide? Or perhaps what they really need is an Easy-Bake Oven for their child's Christmas present, and you just happen to have your old one in the garage! In any case, by making introductions or providing resources to another business, you will begin to build your own reputation as someone to trust with their clients. Then, when another business is looking for the product or service you provide, someone there is likely to think of you! As an added bonus, by asking your trusted network of business professionals, you will find whatever resources you need in your own business. That massage therapist might know a great person to make your sign, or the CPA might know a great house painter! By asking your network for resources you need, you are going to be able to find the right resource for your own business, or even your personal life.
In the same way, when your clients need a resource, and you always have the right person to refer them to at your fingertips, it's likely that they will turn to you more and more as a trusted resource; then, when their friends, neighbors, or clients need your service or products, your clients are more likely to think of you as the person to recommend to others.
Another way to use networking to improve your business is to find and work with strategic partners or referral partners. By learning about these kinds of partnerships, you can help your own business grow, as well as expand someone else's business, too.
The structure of anything but a mixer tends to be the same: you are given a short time to present your product or service (usually thirty to ninety seconds) and tell who you want to meet that week. Structuring your "commercial" is key: you need to give people an idea of what you do! But many groups set aside time for a thank-you section, and it's important to pay attention here, too. Who is sending out a lot of referrals? Who is sending out that one referral that leads to a big sale? Who is meeting with other people regularly? Who is the person everyone is thanking? (Don't forget, the person no-one is thanking may be one of those quiet types who is easily forgotten, or works behind the scenes. If that person is a member, they are doing their part, somehow, or the group would kick them out. One big referral per year would make that person valuable to your business, too!)
Do not think that the person whose business has nothing in common with yours is of no use to you. Remember they have clients, too, and among their clients could be just the person you are dying to meet. But if you ignore them, that person has no reason to trust you or send their friends and clients to you.
One real problem in business networking is over-saturation in certain professions. I know fifteen different residential realtors, and of course they would all love to receive my referrals. Rather than picking referrals at random to send to them, by taking the time to understand both the person and their business, and learning what client is their ideal client, I can help narrow down the choices and make sure that I am not sending my treasured client or friend to someone who may not be a perfect fit for them.
Naturally, as you network, you will discover unscrupulous or less competent business people. Simply avoid sending your clients to these businesses and keep them away from your own clients and business partners. Be very careful about sending referrals to someone who changes jobs every few months, or someone who has just started in a profession. That's not to say you can't do business with them, but monitor the feedback you get on that person very carefully. And introduce them to your business partners, and ask for feedback before you make a decision. I recently introduced a financial planner I wasn't sure about to a CPA whose opinion I trust, and fortunately for all concerned, the CPA was able to verify that the financial planner I thought was reliable indeed turned out to be a very solid resource.
Some groups keep track of referrals and the amount of business closed. While this is a useful tool to decide where to concentrate your networking efforts, be aware that it may take up to six months to receive your first referral from outside the group. Initially, one or two members may try out your product or service on a very short-term basis to see how you perform. It's worth giving those people a free or low-cost sample to get them to talk to others about you. If they are willing to write a recommendation for your web site, or even make a video testimonial for you, all the better; their recommendation may just be the deciding factor in helping someone who has never met you decide whether to do business with you.
There are other ways to network. If you provide a local service or product, check out Nextdoor. It is a private networking site only for people who live near you. You can also join a professional group on LinkedIn, especially if you have a product or service which sells in more than your local neighborhood.
With all these factors in mind, you should be able to discover the value of networking for your business, and be able to expand your business in ways you may not ever have considered before. Good luck with your business networking!
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