I get asked all the time about networking. What is it? Should I be doing it? Why should I be doing it? How do I do it? Along with some disgruntled business people that have tried and failed to “network”. So what are the answers to these questions? Well, I’d like to explore that a little. I’m by no means the only person with an opinion on this topic, and you’ll certainly find some variety in approaches. So I encourage you to do your due diligence and formulate your own thoughts on the matter.
I like to begin with the end in mind and sort of reverse engineer the process. So let’s start with why? What’s the end game? What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to find steady employment? Are you looking to grow your business and thus looking for new clients? Or are you just looking for unique opportunities and relationships to see what life may bring your way? The manner in which you approach things may be slightly different depending. For the purposes of this article let’s say you are trying to grow your business.
If you’re looking to grow your business you’ll of course need new clients and you can be on the lookout for those clients as you are out “networking”. I put that in parentheses because in my opinion if you are just looking for clients that need your service today, that is a “prospecting” activity and not a “networking” activity. For instance, let’s say you have a commercial security system business. If you are at an event talking to someone and they say “I just got robbed, gosh I wish I had a security system” that’s a great prospect for you and you absolutely want to have a conversation about security. But if you’re just after new clients and you need to find them immediately, then maybe “networking” isn’t the right fit for you.
However, there is only one of you and presumably you have other things to do besides “prospect” 12 hours a day. So you’ll want to be on the lookout for something I like to call “Strategic Centers of Influence” or “Referral Partners”; in other words, people that have the ability to send you a steady flow of referrals. You see, there are certain people that will have customers in common, and it makes sense for you to build relationships with the other vendors that do business with your ideal customer. For example, say Scott is going to move his business from one location to another. The first person Scott reaches out to is more than likely a commercial realtor or tenants rep. Then Scott is going to need to think about things like internet service, phone service, security systems, cabling as well as how he is going to insure it. He’ll talk with someone to move his office and probably someone to consult with on adding or upgrading the office furniture. So in our example Scott is going to speak with eight different businesses to get his business moved. The way a “Strategic Center of Influence” works is if you are the business that does commercial security systems; you can build a relationship with the other seven businesses and whenever a client enters into that process you will refer that client to the others. In our example you now have seven other partners that can potentially send you business and you also have seven other resources that you can refer your clients to when they are in need of a product or service that you don’t offer.
Okay, so if you’re still with me, we need to figure out how to meet those “Strategic Centers of Influence” and build out your network. There are many formal groups, events and associations you can attend to do this but first I believe it’s important to have the proper mindset before you choose which ones you attend. You must understand that true “networking” is a long-term play. It’s like growing asparagus; you plant it from seed but can’t harvest until after the second year. However, after that, it will produce a hefty crop for decades. You are not going out to find a client today. You’re going out to build a relationship with someone and to nurture that relationship so in the future you will be able to harvest the rewards. You also need to have the mindset of providing value to your partners, of helping them get what they want. Zig Ziglar said “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” The idea of paying it forward holds true in business as it does in life.
So if you understand that you’re not there to sell your product or service and you’ve identified who your “Strategic Centers of Influence” are then you can start to look at events and decide which ones will be of the most value to you. You then need to set some goals. How many events will you attend each week or month? When you attend those events, how many people will you talk with? When you talk with them, what will you say? When you leave the event, what is your plan for following up with those people? When you follow up with them, why are you doing that and how often will you keep in touch? Answering each of these questions could be an entire article on it’s own so I won’t get into it, but it’s important to think about these types of things and come up with some answers that are congruent with your goals.
So what exactly is “networking”? I believe that networking is the ongoing process of building an ever-expanding web of interconnected business relationships, providing value by connecting those people when appropriate, and relying on them for help when you need it. Networking is community. Networking is knowing that a rising tide raises all ships and strategically placing your ship in the correct harbor.
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