By Lori Murray, Manta Contributor
As a small business owner, you know all too well that connecting with others is vital to the startup and growth of your business. When done right, making meaningful community connections could be the difference between success and failure. Unfortunately, most people don’t learn how to network in school, so it’s not unusual to be a little unsure about the prospect of turning everyday strangers into viable business leads. With that in mind, we talked to some experts in the field and gathered these tips to help you get started.
Give Before You Take
According to Ken Walsleben, professor of entrepreneurial practice at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, the biggest way to generate leads is to offer them to others. “Everybody is hoping to get some benefit. But if they are all takers and no givers, that’s a problem,” he said. “If you have a roomful of people who are prepared to give and hope to receive, now you have some magic.”
Do your homework and be prepared to share information that may be helpful to the people in your network. “It’s human nature to expect that every day will be like Christmas and that you will be showered with leads, but you need to give some presents, too,” Walsleben added.
Tap Into Non-redundant Networks
Networking is a time-consuming process, making it a challenge for business owners who are notoriously short on time. That’s why it helps to be intentional about how and where you network. “Business owners get involved, and it may feel like they are doing the right thing. But they may be with the same people all the time,” said Andrea L. Dixon, executive director of the Center for Professional Selling and Keller Center for Research at Baylor University.
Since your connections may be a reflection of your personal interests, it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of meeting with the same people. And while that may seem productive, you need to find ways to walk into different contexts and settings. Determine where you’re spending most of your networking time, and then look at how that time translates to new connections on your list.
Don’t Overlook Existing Resources
As a small business owner, you rely on bankers, accountants, insurance agents and lawyers, sometimes referred to as a BAIL team, to provide professional services for your business. But many business owners overlook the value of working with these individuals to help build your network. Surround yourself with professionals who can bring more to your business than just the services they render, and let them act as extensions of your personal network.
Other resources, such as regional chambers of commerce and nearby universities, offer numerous networking opportunities. Chambers share their membership lists with fellow members for cross-marketing purposes, and member events are great places to connect with potential customers. Likewise, colleges and universities often host workshops on a variety of topics that interest small business owners. In addition to learning something new, you’ll be able to network with fellow attendees.
Be Willing to Delegate
As the owner of a small business, you’re not the only person in your organization who can make connections and build a network. That’s why many owners rely on members of their team for help, maybe even turning over a committee membership role to someone on their staff. “The value lies in making the initial connection. Once you’ve done that, you can turn it over to someone else,” Dixon explained. “Networking on the behalf of others actually accelerates networking.”
Remember That It’s Not All About You
Before your next networking opportunity, conduct some research on the people you’ll be meeting. Find out what they’re interested in or what they’re working on, and then ask them to share more about it when you meet. After you’ve tapped into what that person is excited about, offer to help. When you uncover a way to legitimately help another person, the connection you make is more powerful. As you build credibility with that person, there’s a greater chance you’ll do business together.
Don’t Jump the Gun
Successful networking happens over a series of encounters. Unfortunately, most people are impatient and expect immediate results. Ivan Misner, founder of BNI (Business Network International) and author of Networking Like a Pro, encourages business owners to adopt what he calls the VCP process—visibility, credibility and profitability.
Here’s how it works: In any networking situation, you must first be visible. People have to know who you are and what you do. The next step involves establishing credibility. That’s what happens when people know you’re good at what you do. Then—and only then—can you attain profitability, a situation that occurs when people are willing to give you referrals on an ongoing reciprocal basis. “Networking is more about farming than hunting,” Misner said. “It’s about cultivating relationships.” Keep that in mind, and you’re well on your way to generating some meaningful business leads.