5 Easy Steps to Improve your Business Networking Skills

This fact sheet is designed to help you to develop your business networking skills, in order to retain and gain customers and suppliers, and to expand your range of beneficial contacts.

What is Business Networking?

The term “networking” produces different responses from different people. As an activity, networking is not new. It is a long-established activity of building and maintaining relationships which has attracted a new label.

Our networks embrace the range of informal and formal relationships in which we are involved; networking implies an awareness of our relationships and of their potential value both to ourselves and to other members.

Networks overlap; A and B may be in the same network but each will have contacts in other networks. Our networks are not static - if we use them, they constantly expand, but if we neglect them, they shrink. Networks are generally of four kinds - personal, organisational, professional and strategic. All provide access to information, development opportunities, support and influence.


Why is Business Networking Important?

Networking enables you to:

  • improve and extend the quality of your relationships and communicate with clarity and impact
  • create opportunities to meet more potential customers
  • be better informed and share information with others
  • share your network's interests, thus enhancing your business relationships
  • meet your peers in other organisations

Disadvantages of networking

Networks don't just happen: they require the investment of those rare commodities, time and energy. They also require a disposition to give as well as take. Most of us are happy to do this; for the minority who are not, networking may be an embarrassment.

 

5 Action Steps to Improve your Business Networking Skills

The range of such organisations varies from town to town and from area to area. A list should be available from local public libraries.

1. Prepare for your business networking

Networking is an activity and a skill, which requires planning if it is to succeed. Remember the aim of networking (in the present context) is to improve your business potential. Spend some time identifying networks of which you would like to be a member. Are you interested in `talking shops' which may be sources of new contacts, or in situations which may provide opportunities for self-development, or as a step on the road to the development of your business?

 

2. Identify formal networks and develop relationships with them

Professional Institutes and Associations run local activities and help you to keep up-to-date with technical developments. They inform you about successes and “best practice”in your line of business and provide support for your continuing professional development.

Associations help you to keep up-to-date with new products and industry trends, and can help to identify opportunities for the future.

Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs)/Local Enterprise Companies (LECs) are bodies with remits to develop training and expertise in their local areas. The objectives of TECs usually include securing the commitment of employers to improve the education and training of their employees and to foster enterprise in the local community. Management Development meetings organised by TECs are usually low cost if not free of charge, and business expansion advice is also readily available. At the time of revision the future of TECs was under review. One option considered was the introduction of a new, network of local Learning and Skills Councils to replace the TECs.

Business Links aim to improve the competitiveness of local firms by bringing together local support organisations, such as TECs and Chambers of Commerce, to develop the full range of services focused on customer needs and delivered from a single point of access. Personal Business Advisers will visit you and help you to plan the development and running of your business. Some services are free of charge. Open meetings encourage business people to get together.

Business Clubs are often focused on small businesses, where members have similar ideas and problems. Meetings are usually informal and activities promote contact between members to generate business between them.

Chambers of Industry and Commerce provide information on a wide range of business activities in your area. Chambers have links with Training and Enterprise Councils/Local Enterprise Companies, Business Links and the Department of Trade and Industry. They hold social events to help you establish and build on personal relationships with customers and suppliers. Many local Chambers offer programmes of training courses, courseware and seminars.

 

3. Identify informal business networks

These include:

  • sports and social clubs
  • neighbourhood organisations and community groups
  • voluntary organisations

The range of such organisations varies from town to town and from area to area. A list should be available from local public libraries.

 

4. Take steps to foster your business networks

Consider what networks you belong to and the range of your contacts in each. Who could help you? Whom could you help? Consider how you propose to develop your networks. Build up a record to which you can refer.

Take stock. What do you want from your network? Are you looking for a regular flow of information, opportunities to develop yourself and your business, support, access to influence, or opportunities to become influential? What, in turn, can you contribute? What are you prepared to contribute?

Learn how to behave in ways that are consistent with networking ethics. Be open-minded; keep your promises; treat others in the way in which you would like to be treated; ask for and give help without embarrassment. Most of all, don't forget to acknowledge help. A smile and a thank-you are beyond price.

How will you go about networking? What style of approach suits you best? Consider these three styles:

Conscious net workers have clear-cut goals. They recognise what is missing in their networks and set out to identify those who will meet their needs and to meet and develop relationships with them. The approach of conscious networkers is systematic and calculating.

Open networkers are again calculating but tend to take a longer-term view, building networks with the future in mind. Their objectives may be less clear-cut than those of intuitive networkers but they recognise those who may be useful in the future and cultivate relationships with them.

Intuitive networkers are neither systematic nor calculating. They enjoy mixing with people and do so as a matter of course. They may even be unaware of the extent of their range of contacts or of their potential value in a business context.

 

5. Get down to practicalities

  • Design your business card to project you and your business

Think of all the factors - colour, logo, taste, positive messages - that will help to make people remember your business. There are two sides to your business card, so consider listing some of your services on the reverse side. If you export/import, carry bilingual cards - it will make it easier for your foreign customer/supplier to network with you.

  • Describe your business in a nutshell

Prepare a clean, short, introductory statement which describes you and your business. If it's more than two sentences long you will lose the listener's attention. Adapt the statement to the person you are talking to - this will prevent it sounding too rehearsed. Use humour if you feel people will be comfortable. It can relax the atmosphere and encourage other people to join in the conversation. But do keep what you have to say brief - no one wants to listen to a long, tedious diatribe about how wonderful your business is. Be brief and let the facts speak for themselves.

If you prepare a brochure describing your products/services, make sure it is in plain English, free from jargon. Clear statements, with plenty of white space, are more effective than a cluttered brochure with lots of colour in it. Remember to convey the message - simply and straightforwardly - that you care about your customers and wish to meet their needs, not just to sell them what you have to offer.

  • Manage time and Get to meetings/events in good time 

The sooner you get there, the more chance you have to arrange things to your advantage. If there is an opportunity to display your brochures, set out a few for people to pick up. If name badges are available, wear one. Having your own is useful, as event badges often use small print. When you are introduced to new people, let them do the talking to begin with. You will learn about them, what interests them, what is concerning them. Encourage them to talk about their business and their future plans. This information will help you to decide how to develop the new relationship. Don't stay too long with each person. Offer your business card, and suggest you might talk again later. Keep the other person's card in a separate pocket to the one in which you have yours, or you may find yourself handing out someone else's card.

  • Offer help

For some, networking conjures up images of manipulative, self- seeking individuals. For others, the most effective form of networking is to give and be useful to others by offering advice, leads, suggestions and helpful ideas. Offer to help if you wish to meet someone again to discuss business. It signals a clear message of service, rather than of blatantly wanting a person's custom.

  • Listen to people's contributions

Business presentations at meetings can be ideal for picking up a possible lead - people often express their problems to a group, rather than confide only in their business partners. You may also identify competitors who could benefit from a partnership arrangement.

  • Generate a record for each contact

Set some time aside each week to chase up contacts - regular contact with people will encourage them to think about you and possibly steer business in your direction.

  • Make notes after informal meetings

You can't easily make notes while talking to people, but you can often jot down a key word which you can expand on afterwards - immediately afterwards, while your memory is still fresh.

Dos and Don'ts for networking

Do

  • Try and focus on being useful to others
  • Listen for contacts' needs as well as their names
  • Keep your promises and have good business etiquette

Don't

  • Shy away in a corner at business meetings
  • Merely contact others when you want something
  • Scatter your business cards unnecessarily

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