This article first appeared on Leadership Type.
When done correctly and consistently, networking is an essential part of growing your small business whether you own a retail shop, law office or consulting business. The more you meet and network with other professionals who are connected to your field of expertise, the better pulse you’ll have on the industry and what is working (and not working) when it comes to promoting businesses like yours.
Each new person you meet is an opportunity network and promote your small business, even if they have no obvious connection to your industry. You never know, maybe they know of a family member or friend who has a business that would be ideally suited for your services.
I was reminded of my poor networking effort earlier this year while attending a class required by my profession. A former colleague of mine was also attending the class and it had been at least 14 years since we had seen each other. We had many great conversations over the week, sharing each other’s experiences and offering professional advice. He even offered to connect me with his father-in-law who was a renowned expert in a particular field I was interested in. Our conversations made me wonder how many other great associates I had failed to keep in touch with over the years. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Keep in touch with your professional network, even a brief email every once in a while is a great way to keep your connections active.
As much as I hate receiving business cards, I still recommend handing them out to people you meet who have a complimentary background to yours (remember, they don’t necessarily need to be from the same industry or profession as you). 99% of business cards will probably be thrown in the trash, but they’re so inexpensive that the one quality lead that you do generate will pay for itself many times over.
One way to make the otherwise tacky business card exchange more personal is to intentionally keep your personal email off your business card. When you hand your card to a new acquaintance, take a moment to write your personal email addresses on the back and tell the individual to contact you that way. This will help your card standout from the others as the person will remember you taking the time to hand write your information.
Trade groups and associations.
Depending on your area, there is probably some sort of industry or professional trade group that deals specifically with the area you consult in. Most of these associations or groups have very modest membership fees and offer a variety of group events throughout the year, these are excellent opportunities to try out your fancy new business cards. Again, the more opportunity you have to network with people within your industry, the more sales leads you’re likely to generate.
Socializing at large events.
If you’re socializing in a large setting like a tradeshow or conference, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make connections with everyone there. A quality conversation with one or two participants can be far more valuable than 20 unique introductions where nothing more is shared than your name and the usual pleasantries (“Hello, my name is Ben. It’s nice to meet you…”).
If you know beforehand that someone whom you’d like to meet is attending an event, don’t be afraid to do a little research on LinkedIn or other social media site for potential conversation points. As I mentioned in a previous chapter, LinkedIn is arguably the single greatest source of professional information for researching and identifying potential clients. Perhaps one of the prospective clients you wanted to meet graduated from the same college as one of your close friends or maybe they share the same personal interests as you. This could be a great talking point, “Nice to meet you Mr. Smith, I believe my good friend Barry Jackson graduated from Ithaca College around the same time you did”. Boom, instant connection!
When you establish a meaningful conversation with a new person, make a point of following up a few days later with an email or phone call (if the conversation went really well). You don’t need to be “pushy”, just let them know that it was nice meeting them and if they ever needed any help or had any questions about the services you offer to please let you know.
Be prepared for the obvious questions.
You’ve probably heard about the 30 second elevator pitch in which you have 30 seconds to pitch your business idea or job candidacy. The same holds true when networking in a new environment.
You don’t want your initial impression with a prospective client to go like this:
You: “Hello, my name is Ralph Dennett.”
New Acquaintance: “Hello Ralph,…John Feinstein. What brings you here today?”
You: “I just started a new consulting company.”
New Acquaintance: “Really, what type of consulting do you do?”
You: “Well…umm…actually I…umm…”
You need to be prepared to answer these types of questions with confidence and authority. Any hesitation in your voice or in the words you choose to describe yourself will not reflect well on your professional abilities. Remember, confidence is key! You’re knowledge, skills and experience are what prospective clients are looking for. They will not hire a consultant who can’t even explain what he or she does.
It’s not all about you.
One of the most meaningful things you can do while networking is to make a connection for other people. In the case of my friend whom I hadn’t seen in over 14 years, he did not hesitate to connect me with his father-in-law who had many years as a successful city planner. This kind offer is one that I will not soon forget and is a great example of how helping other people may ultimately be reciprocated to you down the line. I know I will be on the lookout for ways that I can help that same friend in the future.