Networking is crucial to any business and I have a very unique perspective on the subject as someone who has gone from not giving it second thought to someone who now ironically runs a large nationwide women’s networking group with more than 800 members. I’ve learned a few things about why it’s important – and how to do it, if you feel like it’s really not your thing.

Networking entered my life out of necessity. Many years ago I moved my successful business to Auckland because one of my big clients (30% of my income) was going through a growth spurt and  wanted me closer. I happily packed up and made the big shift with good business prospects looming – in fact I worried I’d almost be too busy! Two months later, after getting settled in, I went to meeting to find this client had been bought by a bigger company and while there was work for me for the foreseeable future, it was limited. Bugger – didn’t see that coming.

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 – better than sitting worrying I figured. I nervously attended my first meeting, and much to my surprise I 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 commercial world.

I couldn’t believe how in such a short space of time I almost had more work than I could handle. I guess what I learned was people don’t buy off businesses, they buy off people, and simply, the more you help people, the more they want to help you. In no time at all I was not only doing really well, but also realised that I didn’t have to know everything about everything. I had people I 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, although 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 work out exactly 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! It turned out networking, aka relationship marketing, was the best way to get clients, by having other people do the selling for you. Nine times out of 10 I’d find by the time I’d walked in the door of my new potential client’s office, the ‘sale’ was a mere formality – most times clients 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 even said no)

So I’m a convert and I’ve even bought a business which encourages others to do it every week. I thought networking was all about talking to people to try and  get sales. What I didn’t realise is it actually makes you feel part of a big community of people who are helping each other get ahead in business too. No more feeling alone and confused.

Now I know bowling up to group of strangers and making small talk is some people’s idea of hell but it doesn’t have to be awful. Here are some of my top tips:

  1. Know that everyone feels nervous when meeting people they don’t know. Even those really confident ones.
  2. Ask lots of questions of everyone you meet – that will also put people at ease as most people’s favourite topic is themselves (think about it!) It takes the pressure off you, helps you work out how you can help the person you’re talking to, which then breaks barriers down for you both, and the ‘friend’ mindset takes over, which we know makes it easier for everyone.
  3. See networking as a way of working alongside people rather than just a way for you to get connections and business. That will happen organically, but it won’t work if you’re only looking for what you can get from it rather than what you can give too.
  4. Put yourself in the ‘host’ mindset if you’re nervous. Pretend the event/meeting is yours then treat the meeting as it you were the host. Sounds odd but it works as it removes us from ourselves and makes things a little less personal, although weirdly people will be attracted to us as we are making them feel secure.
  5. Choose the right type of networking situation for you. If you’re bold and brash, a freestyling situation might be fine. If you’re a little more nervous look for more structured meeting-style groups where everyone has an allocated time to talk about what they do plus time for others to ask questions.
  6. Don’t worry about being ‘successful enough’ to network. Many people feel they are not turning over enough to be considered a real business so are embarrassed to join a group or attend an event. What they don’t realise is that by staying away from networking situations they are learning by trial and error rather than drawing on the wisdom of people who have ‘ been there and done that’ or who might have contacts that can short circuit weeks or months of banging your head against a brick wall.