Networking is important for small businesses. Face-to-face communication can help you forge productive relationships with key people. Over time, these contacts can become powerful advocates that actively support and promote your business.
Networking is valuable for all types of businesses, from start-ups to established firms. Word-of-mouth recommendation is extremely powerful and business contacts can play a key role in spreading the word about your services.
How to network effectively
While some people find networking easier than others, it's something that everyone can do. With some preparation and practice, you can use networking effectively to enhance your business prospects.
You can build a good rapport with people when you know about their challenges and aspirations and they know yours. In conversation, your goal is to build relationships based on trust, not do a sales pitch.
When you talk about your business, try to be succinct and interesting. Convey your unique selling point (USP) and show how you solve problems for your customers. Have a good answer to the question, 'what do you do?'. Instead of saying you're an independent financial adviser, for instance, say you help people make their money go further.
The aim of networking is to create goodwill by being helpful, likeable and knowledgeable. You never know how useful a contact is going to be. The more people you win over, the more likely your message will reach your target market.
The advantages of networking
Networking works on many levels. You can meet suppliers, advisers, investors or customers.
If you build a good relationship with complementary businesses, they will become ambassadors for your business, passing customers your way. A carpet shop can recommend a fitter, for example, or an estate agent can suggest a good solicitor.
Networking is a good way to turn your ideas into reality. A strong business relationship can open up opportunities. Talking about ideas with other people can make things happen.
It's vital to keep in touch with your contacts. Arrange another meeting if you have an idea you want to develop further. You could send your new contact links to useful resources or invite them to relevant events. Another good approach is to introduce people you know that may be useful to each other.
Where to network
There are many local networking events aimed at particular sectors, from food to finance. Become an active participant in your sector or in the local community. Get involved with debates and discussions and attend relevant events.
Your local Chamber of Commerce will be able to recommend events where you'll be able to make new business contacts. You can also set up your own networking group by inviting the people you've met so they can network with each other.
As well as face-to-face, you can also network online on social media or by contributing to relevant groups and forums. Being present on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram can help you meet new business contacts and build relationship with them, as well as connecting with existing customers and prospects. Websites such as UK Business Forums are also popular with small businesses looking for advice and support.
Look for places online that are a good match for your business. If you run an organic restaurant, for example, you could join (or start!) conversations about locally-sourced food or the environment.
The golden rule is to be helpful and not to use online networking to overtly sell your services. Above all, networking is not about a quick sale - it's about building relationships in the long term.