Business Networking. Nasty or Nice?
Wikipedia tells us that business networking is “an activity by which businesspeople and entrepreneurs meet to form business relationships and to recognise, create, or act upon business opportunities, share information and seek potential partners for ventures”.
That all sounds alright, doesn’t it? So why does networking get such a bad name?
I totally understand it’s not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. Some people can’t commit to regular meetings, some people hate making ‘small talk’, and others hate being ‘schmoozed’ by total strangers. You occasionally hear about awful experiences where an overly-bumptious person with zero concept of personal space, tries to ‘work’ the room by flitting around, interrupting other peoples’ conversations, and thrusting their business cards into everyones’ hands. And who doesn’t feel a complete twonk when they realise – MUCH later in the day – that they’re still wearing their lovely name badge from an earlier networking event? (Or maybe that’s just me?!).
But now I’m a business owner and semi-responsible for Howell & Hicks’ success or failure, I think it’s a vital part of what we do. We’ve benefitted hugely from networking (professionally and personally) over the last 5 years, so I’d definitely say that it’s nice, not nasty.
In any competitive sector – from electrical services to estate agency, and from gardening to graphic design – if you don’t spread the word about who you are and what you do, you probably won’t last long. And, to spread the word effectively (and make sure you enjoy doing it), it’s important to find methods that suit your own personality, routines and interests.
Everyone that knows me, knows I’m fairly ’low-maintenance’ as a person – hair down and relaxed-looking, casual-ish clothes and little or no make-up. That’s just who I am, and if I arrived somewhere majorly-suited and booted, or overly primped and preened, people would know that wasn’t the ‘real’ me, and that I didn’t feel 100% comfortable. So I’m lucky to have found a few, local networking groups where other hardworking business owners and managers just accept you for who you are.
And I’m also lucky that I genuinely like meeting people. But that’s not to say I’m a total extrovert, and it definitely doesn’t mean I always feel like springing out of bed when my 5.15am alarm goes off 🙂
At my first meeting, I was expecting there to be some insurance, finance and recruitment companies, but I was surprised to see so many trades there too. And all those highly-successful plumbers, mechanics, builders etc. said that networking had really helped their businesses.
It’s basically like having 40 salespeople mentioning you to their contacts whenever they spot an opportunity for you. Every day of the week.
So how does it work and what actually happens? Well…
1. there’s a group of people: sometimes you know who’ll be there in advance, and sometimes you just turn up and meet new people. Sometimes it’s male or female-only, and sometimes it’s mixed. And sometimes it’s sector-specific e.g. all creatives, and sometimes it’s open to everyone.
2. there’s a time: sometimes it’s very early (which suits me best), sometimes it’s lunch, and sometimes it’s after hours.
3. there’s a place: this can be a pub, a hotel, a theatre, a cathedral etc. – anywhere with enough space
4. there’s usually drinks or food: time and place-dependant, this can be tea and coffee, a cooked brekkie, a buffet lunch, beers and pizzas etc.
5. there’s a chance to talk and/or hear other people talk: informal chatting, 30-second ‘elevator pitches’, scheduled talks etc.
Sometimes you only get a fleeting 30 seconds to tell people your name, what you do, why you do it, and say how the rest of the people in the room might be able to help you, and sometimes it’s your turn for the slightly-daunting 30 minute ‘slot’, but either way, I try to mix it up a bit. If you can include something personal or throw in an interesting, relevant fact, people listen more closely and they’re more likely to remember what you’ve said. And the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the easier it gets.
You can also arrange more in-depth ‘1-2-1’ meetings with people you like and/or have strong business connections with – at one of your workplaces, in a local café or pub, or even at a swanky restaurant – whatever works best diaries-wise, and whatever you both like doing.
And networking groups often organise social events which are great for getting to know people even better. A few beers often reveal a slightly different ‘side’ to the person you’re used to seeing at 6.30am!
Everyone at networking meetings is keen to grow their business by working with other people, but doesn’t mean we’re all clones. The diversity of ages, backgrounds and experiences is huge. And that’s what keeps it interesting. It obviously takes time to get to ‘know, like and trust’ people, but seeing them regularly means you’ll soon know their businesses, their families, (and even their pets!) really well.
OK, so you won’t like everyone you meet, but you’ll really like some of them, and you’ll trust them enough to get them to help with your finances, your private medical insurance and to do work in and around your home. And because they’re usually brilliant at what they do, you’ll be happy telling all your friends, family and wider ‘network’ how brilliant they are too.
And the great thing is, it’s reciprocal. Out of nowhere, you’ll get a call from someone asking for help with their new company logo, or their next sales brochure, and it’s only when you ask them how they heard about you, will you learn they’ve been referred to you by someone from networking.
But as well as passing leads and collaborating on projects, your networking contacts can also become your friends. They’ll lend you a valuable ear, or even a shoulder to cry on, they’ll offer expert help and advice and give insights into daily challenges. And it’s often free of charge. Which brings me onto cost, which can vary massively!
Some groups and organisations run free networking events, others charge a nominal fee to cover refreshments, some charge a bit more to cover the venue, staff and meals, and others treat it as a BIG money-making opportunity and charge an absolute fortune.
But whatever the cost, it’s usually a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for advertising, or recruiting your own sales staff. And because it’s proper word of mouth, the effects are often MUCH more powerful and long-lasting.
“You can get everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”