I am sure you’ve heard the saying, “We are all judged by the company we keep.” There is a lot of value in this statement as it is a testament not only to who we are, but to those we choose to associate with. In business, the value of a close network of high-quality professionals and/or clients can significantly impact your bottom line, improve coveted market share, and increase customer acquisition objectives. In a highly competitive and shifting economic climate, SMART Marketers are increasingly looking to Business Networking as a part of their integrated marketing mix to sustain or grow business.
So, what exactly is Business Networking? How do you find one that’s right for you? And how can you best leverage a Business Network for you and your business?
Business Networking Defined
Susan Ward defines Business Networking as the process of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with other business people and potential clients and/or customers. (Small Business Guide) The purpose of Business Networking is to increase business revenue – one way or another. According to Ward, “the thickening of the bottom line can be immediately apparent, as in developing a relationship with a new client, or develop over time, as in learning a new business skill.”
Business Networking has expanded over the years. It has progressed from national networking and referral organizations (i.e. BNI, Leads, First Tuesday and LeTip) and specific professional and business associations (i.e. Chambers of Commerce, National Association for the Self-employed NASE, International Guild of Professional Consultants, Rotary International) to popular online business/professional networking sites (i.e. LinkedIn, eCademy) and some hybrid combinations (one example of this is South Florida’s own The GoTo Network combining online and offline member tools, background checks, educational components, and a unique rating system by members and consumers).
Each networking organization positions itself differently, and services/costs vary, so it is important to research which one(s) suit your needs best. For example, Business Networking International, or BNI, claims to be the largest business networking organizaton in the world offering members the opportunity to share ideas, contacts and, most importantly, business referrals. Like most other Business Networking organizations, BNI meets weekly and in-person. LinkedIn is a free online professional network of trusted contacts that gives you an advantage in your career. LinkedIn’s mission is to connect the world’s professionals to accelerate their success. The GoTo Network (TheGoToNetwork.com) is a “business success” support organization that helps members grow and improve their business with qualified referrals and proven business ideas and practices. Their strong web presence, combined with face to face meetings, creates a unique and powerful networking format. And, of course, your local Chamber of Commerce is not only an extraordinary professional and business association for the services it provides (informing and supporting members), but it also acts as a voice for its members and a trusted resource for area residents and consumers.
“The best business networking groups operate as exchanges of business information, ideas, and support. The most important skill for effective business networking is listening,” Ward maintains, “focusing on how you can help the person you are listening to rather than on how he or she can help you is the first step to establishing a mutally beneficial relationship.”
The most successful business networkers leverage a combination of networking tools and associations and know how to ‘do it well’ turning their networks into dollars. Depending on the amount of effort you’re willing to put into it, there’s a business network available for you!
How to Network Like a Pro
It’s true that some people are just better business networkers. Just what is it that makes them so good? Following are a few suggested tips that will help you network like a pro:
- Commit to networking as a part of your integrated marketing mix. Certainly the first part to successful networking is a firm commitment to it. Once you’ve decided on the networking organization(s) right for you, register, participate, get involved, and be consistent. Like anything, those who are really successful get out of it exactly what they put into it, and that takes time, resources and dedication. When considering costs of business networking, keep in mind the potential revenue that can be generated for your business. Most Business Networking organizations have great examples and testimonials they can share about other businesses within your area of expertise that will give you some idea of what Return on Investment you may expect.
- Make your first impression count. Michelle Sterling, Principal and Founder of the Global Image Group (a full service brand identify and image consulting firm) says that people are evaluated within the first three seconds of a new encounter… even if it is just a glance. She suggests that when you make the best possible first impression, you have your audience in the palm of your hand. When you make a poor first impression, you lose your audience’s attention, no matter how hard you scramble to recover it. Also “Be memorable” with your first impression. In Scott Allen’s Entrepreneur’s Guide he suggests that you do this by being distinctive, fully present, asking thought-provoking questions and reinforcing your keywords. (remember your USP) He also suggests contributing to group conversation, but not hogging it. Add value to the conversation for them and for you. In other words, think carefully before you say anything and say what you know with meaning and conviction.
- Give and let gravity take its course back to you (In other words, what comes around goes around.) Keep in mind that business networking organizations are made up of other professionals like you and are there to stimulate their business through their network (a.k.a. you + others) just as much as you are. By offering leads and referrals, you are opening up your world to receiving leads and referrals. The more people know and trust you the more likely they will be to pass business your way. Remember always that business networking is a (two-way) relationship.
- Be efficient with your networking. Write down networking goals. Track efforts and results against those goals regularly. Be wise with your time at networking events. Segment your contacts. And, be selective. Business Networking is form of marketing so the right message to the right people leveraging the right medium still holds true. Be aware of alpha networkers who dominate excessive time and space. Control your efforts and use your time to sufficiently work the room and qualified contacts, wisely.
- Follow-up is key to successful Business Networking. Like most other marketing tactics, repeated contacts (touchpoints) support increased response. Also, be sure to choose your follow-up medium appropriately. Use email, phone and in-person meetings based on the quality of the lead/referral. Everyone prefers to be communicated with differently. Like dating, knowing when is the right time to ask for a phone number (with the intention to call) and then requesting the date (suggesting an in-person meeting and a more intimate one-on-one encounter) are steps that must be precisely calculated if you are to continue a valuable relationship.
In Bob Burg’s book Endless Referrals, he reminds us of the golden rule of networking “All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.” Business Networking helps us expand that. So, what are you waiting for, get out there and start networking!
About the Author
Angelo Biasi is General Manager of SMART Marketing Solutions, LLC, a leading full-service integrated marketing company in Naples, FL. Angelo has an MBA in Marketing from the University of Connecticut and has taught Marketing at New York University for over five years. For more information or to learn more, visit www.smartmarketingllc.com or call 239.963.9396.