Like many others, I spent years running a business and never gave networking a second thought. I thought, “Surely it’s for losers or those with no sales skills” – (arrogance alert!). I never gave it a second thought until I had to – quick fact: networking groups are notoriously hard to find if you don’t know anything about networking!
Cutting back to my story…I moved my successful business to Auckland because one of my big clients (30% of my income) was going through a growth spurt and they needed/wanted me closer. I packed up the house and made the big move knowing a grand total of 2 people in Auckland but relished the idea of ‘starting again’ in my mid-forties. Happily, I packed up and made the big shift with good business prospects looming – in fact I worried I’d almost be too busy!
Fast forward two months and I’m settling in to life in Auckland – new house, great prospects, loving the change of pace and scenery. I rocked up to what should have been a routine meeting with my “30% client” only to get some not so good news. Turns out they’d been bought be a bigger company and yes, while there was work for me for the foreseeable future, it was limited.
“Bugger!” I thought to myself. What the hell am I going to do now? I’d come across a business associate that was into networking so thought I might as well give it a go as a long-term business development strategy. It had to be better than sitting around worrying. I nervously attended my first meeting – AND LOVED IT. Here I was sitting in a room of people like me – business people, people who understood what it was like to be self-employed, understood “no I can’t it’s the 20th of the month” and who, like me, were looking to promote themselves in the wider business world.
I very quickly discovered networking is all about getting involved. It ain’t called ‘netWORK’ for nothing. It’s a contact sport, you don’t get any results unless you turn up and participate. It’s easier when you get to know the personalities in the group as well as the businesses, as opportunities often come up out of a simple discussion. I also learned to be prepared for my meetings, to actively sit down and think about my clients and the people in my networking group and think about who needed to be introduced to whom for the mutual benefit of both businesses. This not only made me a valuable member of my group, but also more valuable to my clients as I could introduce them to people who could do things that I couldn’t but that were, in essence, pre-screened by myself.
People don’t buy off businesses they buy off people and simply the more you help people the more they want to help you – it’s called the Law of Reciprocity! Phew – all of a sudden I almost had too much work and once or twice had to miss my networking meetings which was quite ironic. I soon realised, however, that missing too many meetings had a negative impact on my bank account as well as my mental health so ‘note to self’ – even if you’re busy, keep attending.
The big bonus to the business was also suddenly I didn’t have to know everything about everything. I had people I trusted and could rely on for advice and direction in areas of business I was completely useless at. The best way to describe how I felt was that, though I was sitting in my office alone, I felt like I had an army of backup and support at my fingertips.
Networking also helped me clarify the value I offered to my clients. I stopped being all things to all people and started to be an expert in my field. This also resulted in a lot more referrals and a lot more business – who knew?!
Turns out networking (aka: relationship marketing) is the best way to get new clients because other people do the selling for you. 9 times out of 10 I’d find that by the time I’d walked in the door of a business I’d been referred to, the ‘sale’ was a mere formality. Most times they were just wanting to get some more detail and to see if I wanted to work with them (yes, sometimes I even got the choice – and sometimes I got to say ‘no’!)
I always made a point of thanking whomever had introduced me to the new client and kept them informed of the ‘goings on’ as a matter of courtesy and respect. Weirdly, this sometimes resulted in even more referrals. I loved it as I felt I was part of this big community of people who were helping one another.
You might be saying to yourself, “That’s okay for you, Carolyn, but I’m shy!” Guess what? Most people are – myself included! I was given a few tips when I first started networking. One of them was to put myself in the ‘host’ mindset which I found really helpful. It simply means I needed to pretend the event/meeting was mine and treat the meeting as if I was the host or the hostess. We can all do that, as it keeps us from over-focusing on ourselves as we greet our ‘guests’ and make them feel welcomed and valued. People will then be attracted to us because we’re making them feel important and secure (a strategy straight out of ‘How to Win Friends & Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie!).
The other handy piece of advice I was given was to ask lots of questions of people you are meeting – that will also put people at ease as most people’s favourite topic is themselves (think about it!) and anything going on in their lives. This takes the pressure off you and helps you work out how you can help the person. The more you help people get what THEY want, the more you’ll get what YOU want (Dale Carnegie again!). That’s called NETWORKING! – which at its core means you’re working alongside and helping other people while they help you as well.
Handy hint – plan your networking! Like everything else in life if you set yourself some goals and know what you want to achieve from a particular networking event or group, your chances of success are significantly higher.
So go and have some fun! Take a deep breath and go for it. And remember, everyone in the room is probably feeling exactly as nervous as you are!