Understanding the art Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002

Just about everyone in business has their own idea as to what networking means on some level. But what is networking, and why is it so important? Simply put, networking is the exchange of information between people and is perhaps the most powerful business-generating tool. That is of course, if you understand exactly how to use it effectively.

If you are not actively engaging in networking, chances are you’re missing many opportunities to spread the word about your business. Networking provides an inexpensive way to make 20-30 personal contacts during a short period of time. Yet for many entrepreneurs, networking still remains an untapped strategic resource for doing business.

But effective networking is much, much more than just “going to a party.” Effective networking is really a strategic plan to make new contacts. It means being in situations where you can meet and get to know people who can potentially do business with you, or introduce you to others who represent potential business for you.

Since many small businesses are often 1 or 2 person operations, it means that the entrepreneur running the show must wear many hats like that of CEO, CFO, COO, janitor, receptionist, PR manager, marketing director and any other position that needs to be filled. And even though entrepreneurs are imbued with an independent spirit, a yearning to make a difference and a desire to do things their own way, none can really succeed without some degree of dependence on others.

So like it or not, as a business owner, you ARE dependent on others. You’re dependent on others to refer business your way, as well as provide ancillary services that help you service your customers or clients better. Remember that old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know?” Well it goes double for entrepreneurs (and those looking for jobs, too)! Now more than ever you need to develop a strong network of colleagues and associates just to survive in today’s competitive business environment.

There are a lot of things they DON’T teach you at Harvard (or any other) business school. How to develop a powerful network is one of them. Whether you’re just starting a business, expanding into new markets or looking for a job, here are a few tips on the “Art of Networking” and how your can develop the skills necessary for success.

1. Be Prepared

Develop a plan. Set specific and realistic objectives. Know what you want to achieve. For example, do you want to increase visibility, strengthen existing relationships, make new contacts, explore new market segments, etc.? Who do you want to meet and what do you expect to accomplish? What types of organizations will provide the best opportunities for you (chamber of commerce, civic organizations, trade groups and shows, fund-raisers, PTA, etc.)? Whatever you choose, make sure it’s relevant to your business and that you stay focused on achieving your objectives.

2. Do Your Homework

If you’re going to an organizational function or activity, know who will attend. Learn about the organization and the people involved. Look at the organization’s newsletter and other communications. Seek out some of the members and talk to them. Read the newspaper and trade journals to be up on issues and current affairs.

3. Psyche Yourself Up

Effective networking requires a positive, open attitude. You may need to adjust yours. You should look forward to attending the various events. Keep in mind, many people are terrified of attending networking events and miss out on the opportunity to meet new contacts. Just resolve to do it - it gets easier each time you try.

4. Practice Your Self – Introduction

Develop a simple-one to two line introduction. A good introduction includes your name and something about yourself. What you say depends on the event. For example, at a business function you should give your name and what you do. At a social event, just state your name and how you know the host or hostess. Here’s some ideas.

“Hello! I’m John Smith, account manager with ABC Company. And you are?” OR

“Hello! I’m John Smith.
I’m a friend of the bride’s.”

Though it may seem awkward at first, it gets much easier with practice.

5. Practice Your Handshake

Not too limp or too over powering. A nice, warm, firm handshake is best.

6. Check Your Business Cards

Make sure that you have an adequate supply of business cards that are clean and readily accessible, and that they include your name, company, address, phone & fax numbers, as well as what you do.

7. Work the Room

Be aware of time. Don’t spend too much of it with one person. Spending 5 minutes per person will get you 12 new contacts in an hour. If you spend 3 minutes you can increase that to 20 contacts. At larger events, spend less time with those you already know. When a good contact is made, spend a little extra time, but remember - you only want to pique their interest and move on.

8. Follow-up

It’s always good to follow-up with a letter, note, or phone call. Since you’ve spent time making contacts, now you need to cultivate the relationship. People do business with those they feel most comfortable and becoming comfortable with a new contact often takes time. Also, don’t think of contacts in terms of what they can do for you, but what you can do to help them.

9. Be Patient

Recognize the fact that every contact may not lead to a sale. But don’t discount anyone you meet. You never know who they know or who they could introduce you to that might result in getting new business. Adding to your support network or making connections with other people is just as important as sales.

10. Have Fun

Attending functions and meeting new people can be a lot of fun. It’s important to enjoy yourself but don’t forget that a networking event is still work, so be prepared to do business. If alcohol is served use in moderation or avoid it altogether.

Using these tips will get you off to a good start. But what your really need to do is to go out and start networking everywhere. Try different events - business or social mixers, little league games and PTA meetings, your church or synagogue, even the grocery store. You never know who you might meet. For more ideas and information on the art of networking, visit your local library or bookstore. There are a lot of really good books out on the subject. You might consider attending a class or seminar on networking. Check your local high school for adult evening classes or community colleges and universities offering continuing adult education classes. Check community papers for event listing that look interesting. Keep your eyes and ears open and get started right away. Happy Networking!

Robin J Hurd-Graham, is the president and owner of R. J. Graham Consulting, a training and consulting firm serving small to mid-size companies. She can be reached at (610) 407-0280. E-mail rgraham@marketingplace.com.