Good networking generates sales leads and contacts who can help you develop your business. But how do you get your employees to network effectively? Heather White, founder of Smarter Networking, considers the obstacles to good networking and how you can overcome them to develop a team networking culture
Networking is now considered to be part of the job in many businesses, but it often takes an ad-hoc form with individual employees networking more or less as they see fit. Some do it well, others do it very poorly - or not at all.
It does not have to be like this. Creating a co-ordinated, team approach to networking can generate considerable rewards for your business - it opens doors, creates new business opportunities and introduces your firm to potential customers.
Networking should be an integral part of your business development strategy and all of your employees should recognise networking opportunities and feel comfortable talking about your business. But in most firms, it's just a few key individuals who do all of the networking.
There are four main reasons why people may be reluctant to network:
If you have high staff turnover, shift staff around a lot or if you have longstanding staff who are resistant to moving towards a more relationship-driven business model, these will act as barriers to networking. It's difficult to build long-term relationships with contacts if your staff are moving on frequently; it's even tougher if they don't see relationship-building as part of their job.
It may be that you need to alter your recruitment, reward and staff development practices if you want to shift these obstacles. You could, for example, offer rewards for contacts introduced to the business through networking.
You could keep people in positions where they are able to build long-term relationships with key clients; or offer greater training and career development opportunities to encourage them to stay with you for longer.
You can also make sure that your team's networking efforts are aligned with your customers' buying cycles. In some cases (for example, if you are bidding for government contracts), it may be that you have to develop relationships over periods of several years. But sometimes it's a matter of just having the right person in the right place at the right time.
By actively recognising the value of networking, encouraging and rewarding it in your business, you can start to create a positive networking culture.
The majority of people find networking difficult or unnatural. This is mainly because:
You cannot get unnatural networkers to suddenly adopt the attitude of natural networkers. But you can help them improve their skills and confidence in stages. You can:
A minority of people are natural networkers - these people are willing, build relationships easily and are perfectly comfortable approaching strangers. But even natural networkers may need to refine their approach to networking in order to be of greatest benefit to your business. You may need to encourage them to:
Of course, there are some people you should never send out to represent your company! So please don't be tempted to get everyone out there. After all they are the voice and image of your company.
Individuals and teams can be very territorial, even in small firms. They want to protect their niche within the business - and their contacts - and this is sometimes to the detriment of the greater good. If they feel someone else is 'muscling in' on their territory, they may withhold contacts, which will limit cross-selling opportunities and customer development.
How do you deal with this? You could try the following:
Sometimes the problem is that the line management and the team are out of step with each other or with the buying cycles of their clients - as explained above, it is no use arranging a meeting with a customer after they have placed a major order.
When the line management and the team do not share the same approach to networking or the same expectations of what it should achieve, it is usually because one or more of the following factors are operating:
All of these problems are fixable. The only question is this: how willing you are to allow time to seriously get behind these issues and resolve them? The chief factor that will stop or propel you to take action on these problems will be the level of importance that you, the business owner, places on successful networking, and here we go back to one of the issues already mentioned - the reward structure. Are you willing to reward your employees for networking?