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5-Steps to Business Networking

One thing that has remained consistent for decades is that getting ahead in life is a lot about who you know. This holds especially true for getting ahead with self-employment and small business initiatives. To help you get started, below are 5 Steps to productive business networking.

Step 1: Know What You Want
No one can help you if you yourself don't know what you want or need. Is it funding? If so, for what, why and how much? Do you need more customers? If so, who, where are they, how will you best reach them?

It is also important to prioritize what you want when network building. While there are many things a business needs, time is a limited resource. To focus and prioritize your needs, conduct the following exercise:

  1. List all of the things you want or need to help your business grow
  2. Prioritize the list with the most important at the top
  3. Focus on the top three (3) priorities and move to Step 2

Step 2: Identify Network Sources
Network building is all about relationship building. Whether your objective is funding, sales, marketing or something else entirely, the first goal is to identify who knows something about what it is that you want to know more about. With just under 7 billion people on the planet, you can be sure that someone out there can help you. The key is knowing where to look. Below is a sampling of different places to look when building your business support networks:

Online Directories

  1. Business Assistance Programs
  2. Visit the Yellow Pages
    • Choose a state and city/town
    • Select from a list of different types of businesses for contact information
  3. Chambers of Commerce
    • Select a Chamber that serves the geographic area that you're interested in
    • Call and ask for recommendations
    • Visit their web site to view their business membership directory
  4. Internet Key Word Search
    • Search Engines: Use key words to search for trade associations, interest groups and forums
    • Social Media: Search Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for individuals and groups who share your business interests
  5. Virtual Expert Networks:
    • Connect with a broad range of business topic experts
    • Use the online Ask an Expert form
  6. Economic and Labor Market Information (ELMI) Database
    • Key Word search for "labor market information" and "state two-letter abbreviation;" e.g., labor market information VA.
    • LMI online databases offer detailed information about local businesses and related networks including company name, address, size and contact information for different key personnel.
  7. Personal & Local Networks
    What about people you already know or can gain easy access to?
    • Family members and friends
    • People at academic institutions, particularly ones that offer business courses and degree programs as there are often resources available through work study programs, internships, specialized studies and research projects that encourage involvement with the business community
    • Community representatives at religious institution, your favorite restaurant, the fitness center or grocery store

You never know who might know someone that you also want to get to know. Think about the concept, Six Degrees of Separation (also referred to as the "Human Web"), which purports that everyone is only six steps away from any other person on earth through a chain of "a friend of a friend" connections.

Step 3: Make the Introduction
Based on what you learned from investigating different network sources, you should now have multiple options for moving forward toward progress with your business objectives. While reaching out to someone you don't know can be intimidating, keep in mind that strong networks are built upon mutual interests. In this regard, you have something they want and they have something you want. Therefore, move ahead in a spirit of collaboration...

  1. Identify three people who you want to connect with. Document their contact information; name, title, business name, phone number, email and web site.
    NOTE: This is where having a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) System is important. A good CRM System supports the efficient and effective management of customers including sales, marketing, customer service and technical support exchanges. Many small firms start out with a manual system, such as a rolodex-type file and advance to more efficient and robust options such as an Access database, ACT Software package or online subscription service.
  2. Make note of two or three things that you learned about the them or their organization that you found interesting and why
  3. Write down three to five things that you want to learn more about
  4. Introduce yourself. Whether this is by email, phone or in person, an introduction is efficient and covers three things:
    • Who you are
    • Why you're contacting them
    • What you want as a result of contacting them
      For example, "Hi, my name is Taylor Smith and I'm contacting you to learn about (what) so that I (or my business) can (what)."

Step 4: Meet, Greet and Gain
Once you have established rapport and depending upon the nature of your interest, ask for a longer conversation such as a teleconference, video conference, or face-to-face meeting. In either situation, you want to have an agenda that helps to keep the meeting focused and on track relative to your objectives. Keep in mind that most business meetings last one hour or shorter and cover three main activities as follows:

  1. Mutual Introductions; e.g., break the ice with brief introductions, such as...
    • Thank them for meeting with you and tell them a little bit about yourself
    • Invite them to tell you a little bit about themselves, such as,
      • How did you become interested in (your topic)?
      • Have you worked in this field long?
      • What do you like about this field?
  2. The Subject Matter
    • Demonstrate that you took the time to learn about what they do and why it is of interest to you, such as touch upon the two or three things you learned about them that you found interesting and give them time to respond.
    • What is it that you want to learn from them? Have your questions ready and make notes about what they tell you. What you learn may definitely lead to other opportunities.
  3. Next Steps
    • Thank them for meeting with you and share at least one positive thing that you got out of the meeting
    • Close the meeting by summarizing what the next steps are. This can be done by asking the other person(s) what they think is next, by your summarizing what you view or a combination of both.

Step 5: Maintain the Connection
Now that you've gone to the time and trouble to build a quality relationship that can help you and your business objectives, how will you maintain the connection? Following up with a formal thank you can help, as well as make you stand out because many people skip this step.

In addition and as introduced in Step 3, a Contact Management System (CMS) will be an important tool to have in this regard. Beyond an internal CMS, below are other types of business communication tools that can be used for maintaining mutually productive business connections:

  • Social Media; invite contacts to sign up for Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook communications
  • eMail; invite contacts to "Opt In" for email announcements through services such as Constant Contact
  • Direct Mail; add contacts to any direct mail list campaigns
  • Membership Networks; invite contacts to join associations or other business networks that you participate in and where you'll be able to connect with them routinely around shared interests
  • Other ideas? Think about your business, your brand and your target audience. What other communication platforms do they use to learn about what you have to offer?

In summary, these 5 Steps provide a pragmatic and action-oriented approach to building business support networks with the key word being "action." After all, planning without action is a waste of time. Good luck!

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