Despite the benefits of online contact any time, from anywhere, personal interaction is as good for business now as it was 20 years ago. In the world away from your desktop, your competitors are shaking hands with your potential customers over lunch or a laugh right now. What are you waiting for? Get out of the office and network.
Making personal business connections may take longer, but they are potentially as important as driving web traffic and planning your advertising campaigns. For relatively little expense, seeking industry events and other face-to-face business opportunities should form an equal part of your marketing strategy.
When business is slow, mass marketing or email marketing your existing clients seems the obvious low-cost option to generate sales, but forging personal networks with face-to-face contact brings a unique set of advantages. And there’s no ‘delete’ key.
Networking builds trust
The important thing missing from online contact is the real connections that create genuine trust.
The advantage good networkers enjoy is access to more private or useful knowledge only available through personal contact. Filing unmanageable amounts of downloaded documents or exchanging emails is no replacement for conversations that spill over into further mutual contacts and unexpected opportunities.
Meeting with people also brings different skill sets to a business relationship. Online, you tend to stick to one topic or problem. Where a gathering incorporates socialising, common interests outside business tend to crop up too, leading to wider networks and experiences.
In person, you are also more likely to discover how someone’s organisation works. The more ‘flat’ management structure of businesses today means that the ‘say’ in decision-making is spread widely among managers and employees. You could be chatting with one of the company’s key influencers, regardless of their title. The way information flows through a company is an example of the important detail you may learn from a real conversation that is unlikely to come up otherwise.
For potential clients, time spent seeking quotes and meeting new suppliers might be happily avoided by using a personal contact met through networking. If you made a good impression in a semi-social setting, you might simply get the order or at least a chance to quote along with a current supplier.
Consider taking staff along to networking functions or sending them to represent you if you can’t attend. This will boost employee engagement, particularly in uncertain times when spending cut-backs are threatening morale and motivation.
Types of networking
Depending on your industry and your business’ stage of development, there are events of all sizes and costs where you can meet peers, suppliers, potential customers or neighbouring companies.
Chambers of commerce, local governments, community and industry groups are in the business of connecting small business operators. They welcome new members and participants for speaking, presenting workshops or sponsorship. There are niche events for women only, for small business and for new businesses. Trade shows often have after-hours events attached designed for networking.
During annual calendar events like, “small business week” or similar, there are often a series of activities designed for education and networking. An internet search should find when these are coming up in your city.
Tips for successful networking
Once you’ve identified the best networking opportunities for your available time, make the most of them:
Be organised; arrive on time and take lots of business cards. Keep a positive attitude about the event and an open mind about the people you meet.
If you’re nervous, focus on an outcome to suit your comfort level. Simply aim to “approach three strangers for a conversation”, or “meet the keynote speaker” or have a similar goal that makes attendance worthwhile.
Smile, look people in the eyes and give a firm handshake. Give your complete attention, use people’s names and note special information on their business card for future reference.
Listen. Switch off your phone and be ‘present’. Ask questions. You never know where a conversation will lead or who other people know.
Have a sentence or two ready, describing your business, tailored with the listener in mind – ideally framed as a problem of theirs that you can solve. Don’t just list off your services or latest achievements.
Make a note of how people prefer to be contacted. Some welcome phone calls over email; for others, only social networking like Twitter will get their attention.
Don’t ‘oversell’. Pressing business cards on people before moving on to new ‘targets’ is a turn-off. Save the sales pitch for a follow-up meeting.
If you promise to forward information or put a new acquaintance in contact with someone, do it straight away. You’ll be remembered for being reliable – priceless.