Rid yourself of nerves, say hello and meet the people you need to know
Networking is all about establishing a set of contacts among people with common social and business interests. It gives you the opportunity to exchange information that might help you with your business, learn about new opportunities, and generally give you fresh ideas and wider perspectives. It also provides a way to discover potential project partners.
Many new businesspeople worry about networking. If you find yourself hiding behind the sausage rolls, you will need to overcome your social shyness very quickly if you want your business to develop. Networking and profile-raising are all about being visible, and being visible is an absolute necessity if you want to sell your products or services.
You'll find it much easier to make yourself visible if you remember that the key to successful networking is not to think about what you can get out of it, but what you can offer to others.
At the beginning, you may find you're putting in more than you're getting out, but there will come a time when that changes. If you become known for sharing your knowledge and skills, you will establish a reputation of trust, and trust is at the heart of all good relationships, including those in business.
Many people also worry about promoting themselves too blatantly. Rushing round the room giving out your card and trying to sell your business won't make a relationship: actively listening to people will, as will finding out what they do, and remembering that knowledge so you can introduce them to other people.
Your network needs maintaining. Your aim is to build long-term relationships, and that means you have to meet people several times - you can't just network once! If you stop being visible, you will be forgotten very quickly. As you keep going to events, the more people you will get to know, too, and the wider your network will grow.
Where to look
Go to as many business clubs and groups as you can, initially as a guest so you can identify and join those that are most relevant to you. Work out where your potential customers and their contacts are found, and make sure you are highly visible in those places.
Take any opportunity to present yourself to individuals and groups. Presentations and public speaking are another fear of many businesspeople, and another fear that must be overcome if you are to maximise your profile-raising potential.
There are also opportunities for networking at conferences, professional organisations, events and exhibitions. Trade journals and your local Business Link, Chamber of Commerce or Federation of Small Businesses are a good way to find out what's going on.
�Keep a contacts database, even if it is just an index card system.�
People will ask you what you do, so think about what you have to offer - not the products you are selling, but the benefits of using those products. Prepare yourself for describing your business in terms of its benefits. Don't say: "I am a business consultant," a conversation-killer. Say: "I help companies become more profitable." You'll find that many people can't resist asking: "How?"
Keep a contacts database, even if it is just a card index system, so you can keep track of your contacts. Keep your notes up to date with information on where and when you met, what was discussed, and key points of interest about each contact. Follow up contacts when you have met them, and suggest a further meeting if it could be useful, ideally to both of you.
A valuable investment
Networking is an investment, even if the results aren't always immediate. It is like insurance. You can't insure for an event after it's happened, and you can't network in a crisis. So network before you need it and keep networking. Then, when the crisis happens, you've got trusted contacts to draw on. Generally speaking, those who benefit the most from networking are those who are the most generous with their time and the most willing to help other businesses make contacts.
Make networking part of your business social life, and enjoy it! Running a business can be lonely otherwise.