If you’re thinking of finding a business network or business networking events near you, the chances are that you want to either grow or consolidate your business. Networking is a great way to make personal connections with lots of people, get known by other successful business leaders in your local area, and build rewarding commercial relationships.
However, finding the right network isn’t quite as simple as going online and searching for ‘a business network near me’; you should think carefully about what you want to get out of being a member, so that you choose the right ‘club’:
Winning New Business
Your main aim for joining a network might be to immediately pick up sales and generate referrals. Some networks will focus more on this area than others. For example, BNI markets itself as the ‘world’s largest referral network’. While it does limit its chapters to one person from each business specialism (to eliminate competition in each chapter), it also encourages further networking, and wider membership is encouraged by most networks.
New Ideas for Business Expansion or Support
You may be looking for new partners to work with, or have an idea about how you could expand your business with a bit of outside expertise. For example, a designer may want to link with a reliable print house, an online retailer may want to work with a professional call centre, or you may want to find a trusted lawyer or accountant.
Build your Reputation
Much of the time businesses worry about PR – traditional media, social networks and so on to link with the public, but it pays to consider other ways to build your reputation. Business relationships can be just as important and fruitful, and you might choose networking to get in front of your peers in the area on a regular basis. People love to talk and by putting yourself out there in the business community you can support both your reputation and level of referrals from others, and become the ‘go to’ expert in your field.
The Benefits of Learning From Others
Whether you’re a new enterprise, a growing small business or an established company, there is always something new to learn. By networking with a grouping of people from the business community you can gain from their experience and expertise, which may help when you’re considering changes and new developments in your own business.
Finding a Business Network
So if you’re ready to take the plunge, why not have a look online for local networks. You could also ask other local business owners what successful network groups they are part of and what they get out of them. There may be local networks to choose from, a regional Chamber of Commerce network, groups tailored to certain industries or even those with social aims such as Business in the Community (The Prince’s Responsible Business Network).
When you’re deciding which to join, consider the kinds of businesses that are already members, the catchment area and so on – do they match the kinds of businesses you want to link with?
What format do the meetings and events take and do they suit your way of doing things? Are they informal or do they involve lots of presentations, seminars and so on? Are there plenty of events that allow for informal networking? Do they have links with other groups to widen the circle of contacts and business opportunities?
Consider the times and frequency of the meetings and events – will you be able to commit the time needed? After all, relationships are built over time; you can’t just go to a couple of meetings and consider the job done.
Seven Professional Networking Tips and Tricks
Networking can sound a bit daunting if you haven’t done it before – it may feel like you have to ‘schmooze’ people, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Business networking is all about building genuine, two-way relationships. Top tips include: Meet new people face-to-face where possible. While we may all be spending more time online, a relaxed, friendly conversation between two people will get you further in networking than emails and tweets that you’ve agonised over.
- Meet new people face-to-face where possible. While we may all be spending more time online, a relaxed, friendly conversation between two people will get you further in networking than emails and tweets that you’ve agonised over.
- Don’t just talk about yourself; listen to what others are saying and think about how your business worlds might intersect. Remember that networking isn’t just about sales, it’s about making contacts and building a community.
- Relax. You’re not speed dating and you’ll get more than one bite at the cherry. People don’t attend networking events to be sold to – if you want to sell to someone as soon as you meet them, take a booth at a trade show and do it properly! But do make sure you take business cards or gather email addresses from the contacts you meet and follow up on the ones you think are genuinely interested. Don’t waste time (and look desperate) by emailing everyone you met.
- Don’t try to turn every conversation into one about you or claim that your products fit everyone’s needs. Not everyone will be interested in buying from you but they could still be good contacts to build a relationship with.
- Remember that networking is about a wider community. One person at an event might not be able to give you business, but they might know someone who could. Are they more likely to pass on your details to other business owners if you come across as pushy, or as someone that’s personable and easy to work with? Businesses working in the same area will also have similar concerns and the network may be able to lobby on issues together, such as local transport links for example.
- Think about all the key selling points of your business and try to frame an easy way to explain what you do – and what makes you stand out. It’s easy to freeze up (or ramble) when faced with the question ‘so what do you do?’ when put on the spot by a stranger.
- Be in it for the long haul. Just like personal relationships, business relationships take time to grow as individuals learn more about each other and earn each other’s trust. Networking can be a valuable investment, but only if you put in the time and effort needed and value the overall experience.
Business networking isn’t a quick fix for increased sales, nor will it magically transform the number and quality of leads coming in to your business. Instead, think of it as something like a neighbourhood watch, where you all work on an ongoing basis to support your local business community, keeping an eye out for opportunities to improve your working environment together, and you won’t go far wrong.