Business networking is a critical skill in building a successful company, large or small. Networking is not about meeting as many people as possible; it is about establishing mutually beneficial relationships. Here are some common mistakes to avoid, which can also make networking easier and more enjoyable, as well as lead to more business success.
Limit your networking opportunities. If you go to very few networking events, or have attended the same business groups over and over, it’s time to expand your relationships. Change or expand your professional associations. Look for new opportunities at business meetings and mixers, conventions, conferences, and trade shows. Consider also community organizations that interest you. People outside of your industry can be important networking contacts, so think outside the box. Look for social, community, and political organizations that interest you, from PTA meetings to the sport court or swimming pool at a local community center. Anywhere that people congregate. Always be prepared to talk about your business should the opportunity arise. Don’t overlook the opportunity to network online. Be a commenter on websites and participate in discussion forums (such as LinkedIn groups).
Use mediocre business cards. If you’ve succumbed to odd-size business cards, flimsy budget or print-at-home cards, or basic black and white cards, it’s time to make a better impression. Use a standard-size 2×3.5-inch business card on good quality card stock. Make sure it is easy to read, colorful, and attractive. Include essential information such as the name of the business, a good tagline or unique selling proposition, plus your name and contact information that you wish to publicize widely, usually an email address, phone number, and website address. If you have a brick and mortar store, then a physical address is also critical.
Don’t think about how you’re dressed—showing up is most important. Consider your occupation and well as the type of event when deciding how to dress for a networking event. If your industry is more formal (such as finance or law), a business suit may be the better choice, unless the event is casual (such as a golf tournament or evening mixer). If you are in a creative field, an edgier outfit is usually a better choice, as long as it’s neither annoying nor uninviting. Unless you’re at a beach event, beach attire is likely much too casual to make a good business impression. In other words, think about the impression you want to make on those whose help you seek and dress according to their point of view, not a personal statement. It’s okay to stand out, as long as you make others comfortable enough to want to help you.
Don’t have a planned speech for starting a conversation. Develop a good “elevator” speech. In one or two sentences, state the name of your business, what you do, and what makes you better than any competitor. It should be about 10-30 seconds, or the time it takes to travel one floor in an elevator (which is why it’s called an elevator speech). Don’t forget to make your speech interesting to encourage the listener to ask questions. Choose short, easy to understand words. Avoid jargon or buzzwords. Tell your story but don’t oversell. Be authentic. Consider the difference between “I’m an auto mechanic” to “I specialize in auto maintenance that helps you save the most money on your commute over the life of your car”.
Keep conversations as short as possible. When meeting people for the first time, ask open-ended questions to keep a conversation going. Open-ended questions begin with who, what, where, when, why, or how—which will require more than a “yes” or “no” response. Getting the other person talking is also a great thing to do if you are shy or new to networking. Put the focus on them to help you feel more at ease.
Collect as many business cards as possible at networking events. Remember that the goal of networking is to develop relationships. Most people you meet will not lead to a connection—but you can’t know that unless you’ve had a conversation with them to discover their needs. So ask open-ended questions, listen to their answers, and find out what the other person needs. Whenever you meet someone that you would like to build a relationship with, continue to move the conversation along by asking more questions. To make and keep connections, offer suggestions and ideas about their needs—give them referrals or recommend organizations for them to join. Keep the ball in your court to follow-up. Ask for their business card, and ask them if you may send them some email. Be sure to follow-up within 3 days.
Just walk away when you are done talking. Whether or not you have made a connections, to end conversations gracefully, thank them for the conversation and then simply excuse yourself to continue networking, get some food or drink, or visit the restroom.
Toss business cards in a box after a networking event. To get the most benefit from your time spent networking, develop a system for the business cards you acquire and connections you want to nurture. Some people like to retain the physical business card in an organized way, while others record the information in a digital address book or customer relationship management (CRM) system, and then discard the business card.
Don’t keep promises you made. When you made a commitment while networking, be sure to follow-up as promised. Usually, you want to send something useful, entertaining, or personal. This might be a link to a relevant article or book, a joke or humorous content relating to your in-person meeting, or to ask follow-up questions about their interests or needs.
A new year is a good time to examine our habits and make a few changes that improve our lives. Use these suggestions to enhance your business networking skills, make real connections, and establish mutually beneficial relationships with those who can help promote your business all year long.