Often derided and dismissed as manipulative and a waste of time, networking is generally associated with events full of people exchanging business cards and elevator pitches. The increasing popularity of sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have led to even more misconceptions about the value of networking and its role in serious business. Despite these misleading preconceptions, if embraced as a serious business strategy rather than a soft skill, networking has a tremendous power to impact both on the success of a business and the success of the people within that business.
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Despite these misleading preconceptions, if embraced as a serious business strategy rather than a soft skill, networking has a tremendous power to impact both on the success of a business as well as that of people within that business. Powerful networks are essential to help businesses become better known, better equipped and better connected than they could manage on their own.
So, how can networking help you get the edge over your competitors?
First of all, networks can help you to build your profile and your reputation. We all know the phrase ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. Well, more important is who knows you…and what they know about you.
A lack of profile will not help any business succeed. Whether that profile is widespread or among a very closely defined group of people, your reputation counts.
The most traditional way of raising profile, particularly for bigger companies, is through advertising and sponsorship. Yet for so many businesses such opportunities are out of reach. And with the number of ways in which to reach people proliferating, it’s so much harder to get your message across through one or two main channels.
Instead, networking plays a key role.
Successful businesses recognise the value of having a team of people talking about them and associating them with excellence in their field. More than ever we are inclined to listen to our peers when making
buying decisions, and a strong reputation can prove to be the right foundation for building a business.
Understand where you want that profile to go and pick your networks accordingly. Are your potential clients based in a geographic area, within one or more industries? Do the people who decide to use your services tend to be from certain key roles within organisations, such as Sales Directors or Heads of HR? Wherever you need the word spread,
understand who those people will be talking to, where they are most likely to hear about you and network accordingly.
The growth of online networks has made it even easier to raise your profile and spread the word. Clearly, online networks are a much easier way to reach a wider audience and grow a global reputation, but there are also a large number of niche networks on the internet, serving different industries, interest groups and locations. A word of warning here, it is one thing to spread the word about your business, online or off. It is quite another to manage what is being said about you. It is important that you have a clearly defined view of what your message is and what you want people to say about you.
Managing the message that others communicate on your behalf is the key to developing a strong reputation networking strategy. Ask yourself the question before you connect with anyone else as part of your business strategy, ‘After someone has met me, how would I want them to describe me and my brand to someone else?’
Apart from profile building, networks also act as a very powerful tool for information gathering and support. As John Donne said, ‘No Man is an Island’ and this is particularly true now. We need to learn from others, benefit from their experiences and expertise and open ourselves out to new ideas if we are to achieve as much as is possible.
Our networks can provide a lot of that support, both formally and informally. There is a good chance that you already have a network of people who want you to succeed and have already been through the challenges you are facing. How often do you ask for their advice?
If you don’t have the relevant experience in your immediate network, or if you don’t feel comfortable asking the question, there are many networks set up specifically to provide those resources. From the blogs
and clubs on social networks to events with speakers, the support is there, you simply have to seek it out.
Many people attend networking events with speakers without any concept of what they want to gain from the talk. Next time you go to such an event have a look around the room and see how many people
are not taking notes, or are checking their phones for the latest emails!
Instead, outline your key self-development or business-development needs and seek out the events with speakers who address those issues. Set out a list of questions in advance that you would like answered and listen carefully for the answers to those questions during the talk. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can get from such an event when you have a greater degree of focus.
In addition to listening to talks from experts in their field, there is much you can learn from other people in similar positions to you. One growth area in networking is peer-support, or ‘Mastermind’, groups.
These range from formally organized membership groups to many independent meetings. Business people at a similar level to each other meet regularly, share their challenges and offer their feedback, advice and suggestions. In the best groups they will also hold each other to account for their actions.
Additionally, you can gain a lot of the knowledge and skills you need from industry associations and networks. I developed my speaking business through lessons learnt over eleven years of membership of the Professional Speaking Association of UK and Ireland and the Global Speakers Federation. I only did so by attending a large number of meetings and conventions, listening to the speakers at those events and interacting with many fellow members.
While a lot of experience and ideas lie externally, so many companies fail to make the most of information collected under their own roof.
Silos form inside large organisations act to discourage the sharing of market knowledge, client insight and new ideas. People become more competitive than collaborative with their own colleagues, and that serves no one in the long term. Least of all the company they work for.
The third way in which networking is a key activity in difficult times is probably the most obvious, and that is as a referral-generation tool.Please note, I didn’t talk about sales, but referrals. Networking is not selling and should never be treated as such. The people who will really benefit from their networks at present are those people who have been building their relationships over a long period of time. As the old adage goes, ‘making friends while you can, not when you need them’.
You need to be patient if you are to build a referral network. People refer others who they know, like and trust and that doesn’t happen overnight. Those referrals are invaluable though, opening doors that might have been slammed in your face and bringing your business to the top of the pile.
For people to refer you, two things need to be in place. And both have been discussed in this article.
First of all, they need to trust you. You might get introductions from people you have just met, but the better someone knows you and the more they have belief in you, the more likely it is that they will go out of their way for you and offer a strong referral.
People also have to understand your business in order to be able to refer you appropriately and confidently. They need to be able to recognise your prospects and the problems those prospects have that you can resolve. Above all, they have to be able to convince that person that they want to speak to you and find out what you can offer.
That also takes time to develop.
If you surround yourself with people who do have that level of trust and understanding in you, you can ask for the connections you need to drive your business forward in good times and bad. Doors will open for
you that others will be struggling to break down and you can manage the quality of business you attract.
A networking strategy is a core tool for a successful modern business.
Build a strong network and work with that network to ensure you arebetter known, better equipped and have better market penetration than you could ever manage on your own.