When it comes to networking, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face meetings. Sarah Weller reveals how attending networking events has helped her make valuable new contacts, and offers some good advice on how to get the most out of networking opportunities
I've become what I would call a serial networker. In any given month I may go to a few networking breakfasts, a number of evening events, a business exhibition or two and training sessions where possible.
I never realised quite how many networking groups there were in Bristol until I really got into it. There are so many ways you can meet up with other small businesses, from business breakfasts to bank events. There's something on offer for everyone if you know where to look.
LinkedIn is a great way to connect with groups and find out about meet-ups. I also ask people where they do networking, and often find out about new places that way.
Quite simply if people don't know who you are and what you can do, they're never going to call you. Yes, you can advertise, but that doesn't give you the chance to find out about your customers, build long-term relationships and have a good chat.
The idea is that you see these people often enough that you build a relationship - so you're not just selling your business to the people you meet, but to all their clients too. I also enjoy it! Granted, I don't always get in the car for a 6.45am breakfast with a smile on my face but I soon get into it after my morning tea. Sometimes it's easy to become quite isolated and inward-looking as a small business. It's always good to get another opinion, find out what other people are up to and what's new, otherwise you could find you've been left behind.
Tips to get the most from networking
- Get people to talk about themselves first, so you know how to frame what you say about your business to suit them.
- Don't just tell people what you do, there may be hundreds of people doing exactly the same thing. Tell people why they should use you. And think about this in an innovative way. Don't use phrases like “the best/quickest/fastest/most efficient/most creative” - you might as well say nothing. On the other hand, if you say something like “we enabled our customers to improve customer satisfaction ratings by 55 per cent” - that’s worth listening to.
- Don't be scared to take examples of your work if it helps to explain it.
- If you're “speed networking”, take a bottle of water… trust me on this one!
- Don't give up because you didn't win business the first time you went. Networking is about building long-term relationships - it's not a quick fix.
- Always have business cards, and lots of them - you'd be amazed how many people turn up without them.
- Be memorable for the right reasons.
- Listen to others, and show you're listening. If you play with your phone while they're speaking, they'll be less inclined to listen to you.
- Follow up with personalised emails where appropriate - but don't spam.
- Don’t switch off because you can't sell to the person you are talking to - they'll have a network of contacts and clients who may be useful.
- Don't be scared if you happen to end up sitting next to a competitor. Talk about your differences - maybe there's a business relationship to be developed through skills sharing.
- Use case studies and refer to real customers. Give context to your work. It makes it much more memorable.
- Try not to read off a sheet. Have confidence in your business - no one knows it better than you.
- Don't just stick with the people you know. Obviously you want to build relationships, so spend a bit of time seeing how they are and reminding them of your existence, but then move on. Don't sit on a table where you know everyone, they've heard your two minutes already. Go where you know no one, you have more to gain.
- The most important thing to remember if you're nervous about speaking is that everyone sitting around the table wants you to do well, and are just pleased that you're talking at that moment instead of them!