|Building and maximizing your network|
By Howard Grosfield
It’s not what you know but who you know—there’s truth in this business proverb. Knowing the “right” people—those who can help your business prosper—is the payoff from successful networking. Networking is not about finding new business, nor is it is about chatting with strangers. Instead, networking is seeking out people—current or former customers, former work colleagues, old classmates and friends—who can help you find new or better vendors, provide advice on business management, and yes, refer leads or even become customers. And, of course, networking means doing the same for them. The actual practice of building relationships can actually be exciting because it consists of meeting people and talking about your business. At the same time you are learning about (and helping) other business owners.
Most of us understand the importance of building a network, however, those who are making the most of this vital business resource take a systematic approach to develop their network and treat it as a regular business function alongside their other marketing and sales initiatives.
Where the strategy component comes into play is in the preparation and follow-up. Once connections are made, it is important to make a commitment to nurturing the initial contact and keeping relationships productive.
The following tips can help you maximize the business-building value of your network:
Set goals for yourself
Having a clear idea of what you want from your networking efforts will help you decide who should be part of your network. This prioritization will help you select events to attend as well. Chances are you will have many more opportunities to network than you have time for, so prioritizing is key. Consider creating a networking action plan. Set realistic, measurable goals. These can include the number of events you hope to attend in a given time period, how many people you hope to speak to, and the goals you hope to achieve from your efforts.
Choose events wisely
To determine which venues are best suited to meet people who will become part of your network, focus on depth over breadth. Being active in a few organizations that relate to your goals will have a greater impact than attending a different event every night. Be sure, though, to allow for a little serendipity—impromptu encounters may prove to be rewarding networking opportunities, since you never know who may turn out to be helpful.
Taking an interest in the people you hope to connect with is one of the best ways to prepare for an event. If you find several interesting prospects on an attendee list, for example, learn what you can about their company and the business issues they may be facing by skimming their company website and industry publications. Above all, listen and be interested in what people are saying. Interest and camaraderie can help to build a solid foundation for a relationship.
Fine tune your “presentation”
When you network, people are going to ask about what you do. Create a business description that is concise, easy to understand and does not sound like a sales pitch. Once you’ve developed it, try it out on colleagues, friends, a neighbour, and others until it is as good as it can be. It might help to have a few brief examples of typical projects to help paint a clear picture of what you do.
Create a follow-up plan
A valuable contact is one that you can help and that can help you...with no strings attached. In other words, don’t think of yourself as a networker but as a problem-solver, and look for this same characteristic in the people you add to your network. Then start nurturing these valuable contacts. Quickly re-engage with the person—through a brief note referencing a point in your conversation, a quick phone call or an invitation to lunch—to build the foundation for a future relationship.
Howard Grosfield is vice-president and general manager, Small Business Services, American Express Canada & International.
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