Business networking is the process of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with other business people and potential clients and/or
customers. For many business people that may not sound like their experience of networking, which is often equated with meet-and-greet functions where it's a race to exchange business cards with as many ‘opportunities' as possible. Identifying and cultivating leads is indeed one of the functions of networking, but by no means the only one.
People who claim to get something out of networking will give you a different slant on how it works and what it is all about. Networking for them involves meeting people in a wide range of formal and informal forums, people who could be of help to them in some situations and to whom they could be of help in others. In other words, networking should be seen as building reciprocally beneficial relationships. And the opportunities networking provides can be of many types:
Networking is an investment, not a nuisance
By putting in the time to build your network you save time when you need to get things done. Well networked people don't have to waste time firing off random emails or making cold calls for advice and assistance to people they don't know, buying leads or industry lists, or hunting through dozens of resumes for the right candidate. They know who to contact or they have a contact who will know. And being in a relationship with that contact they can probably expect a speedy response – requests from acquaintances get dealt with sooner than requests from strangers.
Building a network of good relations with a wide variety of business associates can really be a big productivity improver.
What's a good network for me?
When you think of a network as a group of people who can offer you a mutually beneficial relationship the options for what to join expand beyond the chamber of commerce and the trade show or professional organisation.
To keep your commitment manageable and focused though, when considering a network to join or networking events to attend you will need to think of your primary requirements, e.g. market information, training and development opportunities, expert advice, or leads. Aim to balance your needs with the level of participation and involvement you are able to commit to.
A primary contact is likely to be your trade or professional association and after that you can ask for recommendations from your business advisors, e.g. your bank manager, legal advisor or accountant, for networking groups/organisations matching your business requirements.
Be an active participant in your networks
Networks are established for collective benefit and are most successful and effective where there is give and take by the members. However, since not everybody has the same amount of time available and yet may be just as keen to learn and share information, different forums may be useful to different people.
If you can't spare the time to attend functions and events you might focus on finding a network hosted on the Internet. Similarly, if you do not think you are likely to be able to proactively pass information on or help someone else in return for advice then stick to joining a more passive network that supplies newsletters and bulletins and hosts online debates rather than joining an events-based one.
Where you are involved in meetings-based groups you will be expected to actively share your experience by talking to the other members as well as passively learning from hearing about theirs. When you attend debates and discussion groups don't hesitate to contribute your ideas and experiences or even deliver a talk on some aspect of business you feel particularly confident with.
A network's strength in any particular area or service depends on how actively its partners exchange information with each other and reciprocate when they receive a request for assistance. If you receive advice from a network partner be prepared to offer your own help in the future. To improve sales remember to regularly pass on recommendations for other member's businesses to your customers – your network partners should do the same for you. And if you have been pleased with a particular supplier let your fellow network members know so they also have an opportunity to try them out.
Networking is a great way to get to know new business professionals in both your own line of work and in ones related to what you do. The results? A high quality network of diverse business people who can provide answers, insights and leads.