What does the word ‘networking’ invoke for you? Visions of business cards being flung around like confetti, sweaty palms, a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? If so, you are most definitely not alone… there are millions of people out there who sit on your side of the fence. And yet the irony is, it doesn’t have to be that way at all.
Networking is one of the essential skills you need as a small business owner or manager – in fact, many would argue that it is the essential skill.
Despite this fact, it is the source of much dread for persons the world over from all walks of life – and not just those in business.
Just why do we dread networking so, despite how much we all know we need it, and what can be done to overcome this sticky situation? We go in-depth to investigate with the first part in our guide to Small Business Networking 101.
1. Why is networking necessary?
Would you rather have someone stick pins in your eyes than network? Can’t see the point in small talk? Think networking is over-hyped?
Think again. Perhaps this assortment of networking quotes and statistics might convince you:
• Networking has been called “the single most powerful marketing tactic to accelerate and sustain success for any individual or organization” – Adam Small via the Strategic Business Network
• Of an ongoing survey conducted by Business Network SW, the top reasons why respondents said they networked were to build relationships, look for opportunities and business development.
• “Your net worth is only as good as your network.” This quote from Rishi Chowdhury, writing for Business Insider Australia, speaks to the value of maintaining an open network for developing business partnerships, seeking start-up money and getting your business off the ground.
• Networking can help you develop as a person, especially if it doesn’t come naturally. Most particularly, it can help you develop confidence, according to Kim Baird of the Amazing Business blog.
• Fully 73 percent of employees surveyed by Statista in 2012 regarded networking opportunities provided through their workplace as being ‘Important’ or ‘Very Important.’
• Networking is “an essential part of advancing your career,” according to businesswoman Madeline Bell. And the stats back her up, with 7o percent of all jobs found through networking, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data (via sysazzle.com).
These can be relationships formed over an extended period, hence why maintaining a long-term rather than short-term view is important. Even if you aren’t currently in the market for a job, it also works well in reverse … you may be looking to hire at some stage, so keep those networks open!
2. Yes, ok – but why is networking so SCARY?
What is it about the act of interacting with another human being – albeit a stranger – that has us quaking in our boots? Perhaps it’s because we believe all too readily some common myths about networking that causes us to avoid it like the plague.
Photographer Christian Grattan has done some thinking on these myths. He identifies them as 1) You have to be super extroverted and have no social anxiety to be good at networking; 2) Networking takes too much time, and 3) Networking has to be formal. Christian makes some excellent points, but to these, I would add a fourth myth that I think is also highly relevant: 4) The purpose of networking is to make a sale.
These myths can cast in a different way – let’s call them the three P’s, just for fun: personality, particulars, and purpose. Let’s look at each in turn.
First up: personality. This can play a huge factor in how much (or how little) you enjoy networking, particularly if you are an introvert (if you are confused about introverts/extroverts, essentially the difference is this: Introverts energize themselves by spending time alone; extroverts energize themselves by spending time with others. Still confused? Check out this chart from the Huffington Post.
However, as Christian notes, you don’t have to be super extroverted to be good at networking.
Networking is equally as valid one-on-one as it is at an organized networking event with swarms of people. In fact, arguably more correct, you can connect so much more with someone in a conversation over a coffee than you are by flinging a business card at a stranger in the rushed interval between conference sessions.
For introverts, this is great news, as this is the kind of interaction at which they excel.
As for particulars – the location, timeframe, and formality of networking – this is wonderfully open to being mixed up any which way you wish to reinvent it.
Far from being confined to the environs of a conference, any moment of the day, any interaction, opens up an opportunity for networking if you think of it more as a channel for connecting with others rather than as an opportunity to make a sale.
Take for example a very typical interaction: grocery shopping, or a trip to the drug store. If you find networking and small talk difficult, try this experiment: turn the conversation around, so it’s you asking the usual questions: ‘Do you have much planned for the weekend?” “Long shift today?”
Sometimes these basic openers can open a conversation that will get the same mechanics of connection going that will stand you in good stead for networking. Networking is a cultivated habit: it needs practice.
If you are a bit rusty (and want to work on it), try using everyday interactions as an opportunity to build a connection with others, rather than thinking you have to go somewhere specifically for the purpose of meeting others.
Lastly, to purpose. Some people approach networking with a kind of evangelical zeal – you have no doubt come across more than a few people like this in the past. Their every interaction, for them, is an opportunity to find new customers or make a sale, and it shows.
Far from ‘relationship-based’ marketing, this kind of networking looks only for the advantage on one side … the seller’s … and cares little for the experience of the person on the other end. The irony is, even if the individual is persuaded to buy something they often feel “used” as a result of the transaction and are unlikely to commit to being a customer in the long term genuinely.
Instead, it’s best to approach networking from the perspective of what you can do for the other person, and not what they can do for you. Try and seek to identify how you can meaningfully help them … and not by persuading them that they desperately need your product or service. This is how to build long-lasting business relationships.
This concludes Part 1 of our two-part series on small business networking. Stay tuned in coming weeks for Part 2, where we delve into strategies for making authentic connections when networking with others.
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