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 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 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.
What prevents your people from networking?
There are four main reasons why people may be reluctant to network:
- Your policies and practices discourage it.
- Many people may find it unnatural; others simply need to hone their skills.
- Divisions between individuals and teams are preventing networking.
- Line management and team are out of step.
1. Your policies and practices discourage networking
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 or 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. You could, for example, offer rewards for contacts introduced to the business through networking; keep people in positions where they can build long-term relationships; or offer greater training and career development opportunities to encourage them to stay with you for longer.
Make sure your 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 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, you can create a positive networking culture.
2. Individuals find networking unnatural or need to hone their networking skills
The majority of people find networking difficult or unnatural. This is mainly because:
- they fear rejection
- they are uncomfortable with strangers
- they don't have the right emotional intelligence skills
- they lack confidence
- time is tight and they feel they have better things to do
- they need proof it works
You cannot convert unnatural networkers to natural networkers overnight. But you can help them improve their skills and confidence in stages. You can:
- Explain the benefits of networking to them (personally and professionally) so they understand why you need them to network.
- Encourage them to develop an approach to networking they feel comfortable with. Someone who is uncomfortable approaching contacts cold, for example, might prefer to be introduced by someone else or to meet people at sociable events.
- Ensure their networking activities are aligned with the buying cycles of your clients, so they can see a clear purpose to the networking.
- Encourage them to form business relationships they are happy with: some people prefer quite sociable relationships whilst others prefer a more business-like relationship. Both are acceptable - don't force your employees to behave in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
- Give them patient, persistent support.
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:
- build a wider circle of influential contacts
- refine their 'soft' skills
- make better use of their network - many people build up good networks, but are reluctant to ask anything of their contacts
- work on what they should say about your business to new and existing contacts
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.
3. Divisions between individuals and teams are preventing networking
Individuals and teams can be very territorial, even in small firms. They want to protect their niche - 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, limiting cross-selling opportunities and customer development.
To tackle this, you could try the following:
- Develop a variety of communication channels between you and your contacts - use blogs, social networking sites, your website, and so on. Consider inviting contacts to informal events with staff - do all you can to get rid of exclusivity by facilitating relationships between outsiders and different parts of your business.
- Break down barriers between colleagues by increasing cross-team working, organising group training and social events.
- Introduce a system for recording and sharing all new introductions and tracking your communications with them. A good customer relationship management system will be able to do this. Make sure all employees stick to the system.
- Send a regular email bulletin to all employees informing them of new developments, key sales and fresh customers - and celebrating success stories within the business.
- Position your natural networkers strategically within the business. Ensure they are in a position - perhaps physically - to link together individuals and teams who do not work well together.
- Accept that it will take time to create a contact-sharing and networking culture within your business.
4. Line management and team are out of step
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. When the line management and the team do not share the same approach or expectations, it is usually because:
- there is an expectation that everyone should network
- management sees networking as selling
- they expect quick results
- there's no team strategy
- management does not encourage sharing of knowledge/contacts
- networking is not part of the appraisal process
- the attitude of the line manager is creating barriers
- the manager needs proof it works
All of these problems are fixable providing you 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 place on successful networking. You have to ask yourself whether you are willing to reward your employees for networking?