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 the 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' most valuable assets. Make a start by thinking about your business needs and who could fulfil them.
1 Research networking events
1.1 List your key business needs.
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.
Networking with people from similar backgrounds who face similar challenges lets you share ideas, support each other and develop confidence.
1.2 Think about who could help you to fulfil these needs.
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?
1.3 Identify organisations they are associated with.
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 business support agency or Chamber of Commerce. Also ask your bank manager, lawyer and accountant, as well as your suppliers and customers.
Think about the opportunities offered by your existing social networks. For example, community groups and local business people you know. Consider getting more involved.
Check 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.
1.4 Find out about relevant networking events.
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.
To find your local Chamber of Commerce visit www.britishchambers.org.uk/find-your-chamber/ or call 020 7654 5800.
2 Get organised
2.1 Schedule networking events in your diary.
Rearrange other appointments in advance if these conflict. Don't cancel them because these provide networking opportunities, too. Base your decisions upon your business priorities.
2.2 Differentiate between the importance of events.
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, make sure someone else is there to represent you if possible. Networking should be the responsibility of all company representatives - not just the owner-manager.
2.3 Formulate a 20-second presentation about your business.
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.
- Your key business strengths and unique selling proposition (USP) - these differentiate you from your competitors.
- Information about what value your business can offer. It is not sufficient to simply talk about what you have supplied to your customers - you need to convey what it enabled them to achieve.
- Recent important news about your company (eg winning a new contract or investing in new equipment).
- Your key business needs.
3 Prepare for an event
3.1 Get a list of attendees in advance.
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.
3.2 Make sure you have enough business cards.
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 and correct. Writing your new mobile number or email address on your business card looks unprofessional. Get some new ones printed if necessary.
3.3 Only plan to take appropriate items with you.
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. Check in advance if the event organisers allow this
3.4 Dress to impress in all situations.
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, dress more casual. Being overdressed can create the wrong impression, too.
If you're unsure about dress code, ask the event organisers.
3.5 Practise introducing yourself.
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 to 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.
3.6 Arrange for a colleague to come along
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.
4 Events etiquette
4.1 Introduce yourself to the organisers.
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.
4.2 Recognise when networking activities are appropriate.
When an event's main purpose is educational, being seen to 'work the room' can be frowned upon. Instead, speak to people during breaks.
Maximise your efforts when events are staged purely as networking opportunities.
4.3 Don't wait for others to approach you.
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.
4.4 Prioritise people on your shortlist first.
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.
4.5 Introduce yourself to others.
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.
4.6 Ease the conversation towards your business.
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.
4.7 Gather as much information as possible.
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.
4.8 Conclude the conversation and move on.
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.
4.9 Don't neglect getting something to eat or drink.
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.
5 Follow up new contacts
5.1 Record details of conversations you had.
Do this shortly after an event while information is still fresh in your 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.
5.2 Safely file away contacts' business cards.
Enter contact details and profiles into a database or contact-management system.
5.3 Make contact by telephone.
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.
5.4 Maintain good relationships.
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.
6 Network online
6.1 Research online networking opportunities.
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 should 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.
6.2 Draw up a shortlist of organisations.
Confine this to those that are relevant to your business needs.
Add important website addresses to your favourites and visit them regularly.
Find out whether there are any subscription fees payable.
6.3 Get your online profile right.
Some online networking organisations will request a short profile of your business or yourself for inclusion on the site.
Be honest when telling others about your business.
6.4 Play a full and active role.
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.
6.5 Attend as many non-virtual events as possible.
Many online forums and discussion groups stage events for their members. Meeting contacts face-to-face is still a valuable way to conduct business.
- Find your trade association by contacting the Trade Association Forum on 020 7395 8283
- Find your local Chamber of Commerce by calling 020 7654 5800 or by visiting www.britishchambers.org.uk/find-your-chamber
- Well known online business networks include www.sunzu.com and www.linkedin.com. Search online for other networks serving particular local communities
- Your local business support organisation may be able to help you find community groups in your area
- Search the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action