Networking is the art of forming and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with others who are linked to your career, sector, market, region or specific interest. To maximise your benefits you need to be active in sharing your experience, knowledge and contacts with other network members. In the same way you gain from your relationship with them.
Successful networking can help you to raise your profile, meet new customers, develop your knowledge or skills, explore new ideas, find investment, establish partnerships, build a presence in other markets and source new suppliers.
Popular networking opportunities include trade shows, conferences, seminars and social gatherings. These are often organised by trade associations, professional bodies, business support organisations and interest groups. Online networking allows you to share knowledge and establish relationships with people all over the world.
Given sufficient time and energy, your networks could become one of your business's most valuable assets. Make a start by thinking about your business needs and who could fulfil them.
Your business goals, any difficulties you might be experiencing and areas you want to improve should guide your thinking. Try to anticipate the needs you will have in the future.
Your list might include attracting investment, finding a business partner, sourcing a new supplier, opening up new markets and increasing your knowledge or skills.
Next to your needs, list the types of people, companies or organisations that might be able to provide solutions.
Develop a general idea of each. Where are they located? What can they provide you with? What will they expect from you?
These could be professional bodies, trade associations, forums or interest groups.
Find other organisations that are relevant to you, your business, sector, region or specific interest. To do this, read the trade press, business directories or search online. Seek information from your local Enterprise Agency or Chamber of Commerce. Also ask your bank manager, lawyer and accountant, as well as your suppliers and customers.
Discover whether your competitors belong to a trade association, professional body or network.
To find your trade association visit the Trade Association Forum website or call 020 7395 8283.
Add the contact details of all relevant organisations to your records. Important web addresses should be added to your favourites and visited regularly.
Discover what services they provide, who their members are and what events they stage (eg conferences, seminars, mentoring or training programmes and social gatherings).
Discover when, where and why such events take place. If you cannot find sufficient information online, contact organisations directly. Ask whether you have to be a member to attend their events. If so, find out about membership costs and benefits. If events are open to non-members, find out whether you have to pay to attend.
Learn about events held by business-support organisations (eg Business Links, Chambers of Commerce, Enterprise Agencies).
For information about Business Link events visit www.businesslink.gov.uk/bdotg/action/event?r.s=sl
To find your local Chamber of Commerce visit http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/find-your-local-chambers or call 020 7654 5800.
To identify your local Enterprise Agency visit the National Federation of Enterprise Agencies website
Rearrange other appointments in advance if these conflict. Don't cancel all other meetings, because these provide networking opportunities, too. Base your decisions upon your business priorities.
Guided by how much time you can spare and how likely you are to achieve worthwhile objectives, recognise which events you need to attend and which ones are less important.
Don't aim to attend all events. If you cannot attend an important one, if possible, make sure someone else is there to represent you. Networking should be the responsibility of all company representatives - not just the owner-manager.
You will be able to use this when you meet people at networking events.
This should include:
Continually reassess your strengths, USP(s), value and needs. You need to ensure that the things you say about your business are up to date when you meet people at events.
Arm yourself with knowledge about important people and their company or organisation. These are the people you identify as being most likely to meet your key business needs. Names and job titles are usually listed alongside company names in events literature. Learn more by visiting their websites.
Create a shortlist of people you want to meet. Know what you need to ask them and prepare yourself for any questions they might ask you.
Writing your contact details on a scrap of paper will make you look unprofessional and reduce the likelihood of someone contacting you.
Make sure your details are current. Writing your new mobile number or email address on your business card also looks unprofessional. Get some new ones printed if necessary.
Think about the nature of the event you are attending and remember that you are networking - not selling. It will not be appropriate to give away samples or company promotional items at certain events. At others it will.
Plan to wear clothes that are appropriate for the event. This will make you feel more confident and create a better impression.
If the event is formal, make sure you wear formal clothes. If the event is less formal, wear more casual clothes. Being overdressed can create the wrong impression, too.
If you're unsure about dress code, ask the event organisers.
When answering the question "What do you do?", you need to be friendly, clear and concise. You might only have a very limited amount of time to speak with someone and you need to make a good first impression.
Avoid unnecessary industry jargon - it can make you look foolish.
Never lie about who you are or what your business does, but don't be overly modest.
The information you give about your business (see section 2.3) should also be delivered in a friendly, clear and concise fashion. It should contain important and interesting facts, and give others the chance to interject.
Practise your presentation until it becomes second nature, but avoid being robotic in your delivery. Remember, the information needs to be up to date.
This way, the networking workload can be shared. It can also make your business appear more impressive, while colleagues can use each other as a sounding board, before, during and after the event.
If the organisers know who you are they can point others in your direction and even make introductions.
Ask the organisers for assistance if you are struggling to identify other attendees you want to speak to.
When an event's main purpose is educational, being seen to °work the room" can be frowned upon. Instead, speak to people during appropriate breaks.
Maximise your efforts when events are staged purely as networking opportunities.
The more proactive you are in approaching others, the better your chances of success.
Waiting around at the edge of a room will make you look nervous and unpopular.
These are the individuals you have identified as most likely to be able to meet your business needs (see section 3.1). However, don't ignore others, because these might still be good contacts.
Never interrupt those involved in a deep conversation. This will look rude and cause embarrassment.
When appropriate, approach an individual or group, say hello and give a firm handshake.
Smile and maintain good eye-contact.
To make the other person feel comfortable, begin with small talk, perhaps about the event or venue.
Move the conversation towards you and your business (see section 2.3), remembering to answer any questions that might crop up.
Never talk over another person. Show an interest in them, their business needs and aims. Pick up on any interesting points they raise.
Think about ways people you meet might be able to help you and how you can help them.
Don't be afraid to take brief notes if this will help you to formulate your thoughts later on.
Don't let the conversation drift, or take any longer than is necessary. However, you should aim to leave each encounter with something valuable.
Decide a way forward, for example, promising to get in touch to arrange another meeting. Once you make an arrangement - always stick to it.
Exchange business cards, shake hands and move on.
If you don't think you can help each other - be polite. You might be able to help each other at a later stage. Say that you enjoyed meeting them, exchange business cards and move on.
A refreshments or dining area can provide the perfect place to network. Begin with a comment about the event, the venue or even the food.
Avoid anything fiddly to eat and don't end up juggling a bag or briefcase with your food or drink.
Do this shortly after an event while information is still fresh in the memory. It is important to note down all potential opportunities.
Remember any personal details you might have got from small talk with people you have met at events. These will help to break the ice when you speak with contacts again.
Keep your notes to hand in case someone you have met at an event decides to contact you first.
If applicable, enter contact details and profiles into your electronic database or contact-management system.
If possible, do this within a couple of days of meeting a new contact.
Remind them about who you are, which business you are from, recap your discussion and tell them you found it a pleasure meeting them.
Agree a way forward, for example, setting up a face-to-face meeting.
Send an email to confirm the details of your telephone conversation.
Aim to establish firm alliances with every useful contact you meet.
Maintain regular contact and update them about changes to your business. Keep up to speed with their business developments, too.
Networking is not simply a means of meeting new contacts. It involves maintaining existing relationships as well. This applies even if their jobs have changed or if they have moved company.
Some organisations offer online networking opportunities as part of a wider package, while others exist purely as online networking entities.
Online networking enables you to share knowledge and establish contacts with people all over the world.
Find online networking organisations suited to your business needs. Completing section 1.3 might have already helped you to identify some.
Research international networking organisations.
Find out why they exist, who their members are and what benefits your involvement will bring you.
Confine this to those that are relevant to your business needs.
Add important website addresses to your favourites.
Find out whether there are any subscription fees payable.
Some online networking organisations will request a short profile of your business for inclusion on the site.
Be honest when telling others about your business.
The basic principles are the same as offline networking. You must be prepared to offer your views, expertise and contacts even when this provides you with no apparent or immediate return.
Do not use your involvement simply as an opportunity to 'hard-sell'.
Many online forums and discussion groups stage events for their members. Meeting contacts face-to-face is still the best way to conduct business.