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Tips for mastering the art of networking

Here is some good news for business owners who are more comfortable with machines and production processes than with people: successful networking with people is every bit as systematic as networking with computers.

“You don’t have to be Miss Congeniality to network successfully with potential clients, suppliers and business associates,” says Corene Marx, marketing manager at Business Partners. All that is required is a strategy, some dedication, order and maintenance. In short, networking is a business process like any other that even the most unsociable techie can master.

This insight also carries a message for the sociable type of business owner for whom networking comes naturally: no matter with how much flair you are able to conduct your business relationships, you will do even better if you build a bit of a system around it.

Marx offers the following pointers to help business owners think about networking – a much-neglected system in many businesses. First, some general principles, followed by some tips on what to do when you are at a networking event.

  • Approach networking for what it is – a crucial business system like your accounting system, HR system, or production system. It means that you have to spend some time thinking about it, working on it and maintaining it. “It’s a recipe,” says Marx. “Once you’ve worked out your recipe, networking becomes easy.”
  • Define your target groups – if you don’t, you’ll end up chasing your own tail. How wide you should throw your net depends on your business. A tourism business may want to include entire country networks and sectors such as travel agents, while a niche tech business starts with a much narrower group of specialised suppliers, clients and business associates.
  • Networking only among your peers is not wide enough. It is inadequate for a printer, for example, to limit his networking only to the local printers’ association. Seek out clients and business opportunities upstream, downstream and adjacent to your sector.
  • Start with a list of people who are in your network already – your existing clients, suppliers and business associates, but be sure to add new people, or whole categories of people that you want to target. This is just the start – a healthy business network has new contacts coming in all the time, as well as having old ones removed as their relevance fades.
  • One of the key principles of effective networking is your ability to prioritise each contact, and that you spend most of your time cultivating those who are most important to your business. Think of a funnel – where a lot of contacts move in from the wide end, but only a few end up yielding results. Effective networking requires that that you constantly reprioritise your contacts as their importance to your business waxes and wanes.
  • You don’t need the latest customer relationship management software. It can be handy, but if money is tight you can effectively manage a large network with an ordinary spreadsheet using simple categorisation tools such as colour coding to prioritise contacts.
  • Make time to think, strategise and research each of your contacts, firstly to correctly prioritise each. Then, think about how you need to cultivate each of your categories. For example, you could decide to contact your “Category A” contacts at least once a quarter, invite them to a special event or treat them to lunch every so often. The next category of contacts could be treated similarly, but perhaps less regularly, while your least important category simply gets your regular email newsletter, for example.
  • Relationships take time to develop, and are built on genuine interest and mutual benefit. The key is regular contact, but it does not have to be monotonous. Interactions can vary from a call to say thank you, to introducing a useful contact, sending an interesting article or referring a client (and even asking for advice is a good way to make someone feel important). Don’t leave these things to spontaneity – plan and schedule them.
  • Clean up your contact list regularly, not only removing redundant entries, but reprioritising each contact so that you invest most of your time and energy in the most important ones.
  • Internet-based social networking is important as a medium of contact, and be sure to maintain your presence on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as you would your appearance – neat and fresh. But you don’t have to “hang around” there. True business networking happens face to face.
  • Think carefully about your business networking calendar so that you don’t waste your time attending events that yield little. But don’t be afraid to experiment to see which events work for you. Get out there.

So you’re staring at a room full of people over a platter of samoosas wishing you were back at the workshop. What should you do to get the most out of a networking event even though you’re not a natural networker?

  • First, relax. You don’t have to be the belle of the ball. You don’t have to pitch anything to anybody. Just the fact that you’ve managed to tear yourself away from your operation to be there is already a major step towards growing your networking skills.
  • Start by listening to conversations, even if you don’t participate at first. Sooner or later an opportunity will arise to ask a question and become part of the conversation. Carry your business cards for when you get a chance to introduce yourself, or have you smartphone ready if it’s a digital kind of crowd – or both.
  • As soon as you get used to such events, you will find out how easy it is to approach someone, introduce yourself and start a conversation.
  • It is always better for networking to do more listening than talking.
  • Don’t try to speak to everyone at an event, but also don’t monopolise one person. If you know who is going to be there, it is sometimes good to plan with whom you want to make contact before you leave.
  • Networking actually begins when you leave the event. Now, you have to be diligent in filing the contacts that you’ve made into your system, prioritising them, and in doing so scheduling the kind of follow-up needed. If it’s late and you’re not going back to the office, scribbling a note or two on the back of the contact’s business card is a good way to remind yourself who the person is and why you thought they could be a useful in your network.

This article was first published by Business Partners. Business Partners is a specialist risk finance company for formal SMEs in South Africa, and selected African countries. The company actively supports entrepreneurial growth by providing financing, specialist sectoral knowledge and added-value services for viable small and medium businesses.

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