Networking is an essential method for developing productive and sustainable business relationships. For many people, networking seems to mean building large lists on their social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram. Others believe that attending every organized networking event in town and handing out as many business cards as possible is the way to go. Effective networkers know that building trusted relationships with individuals where natural business collaboration opportunities exist is the most effective way to use networking for business development.
The truth is that all of the above are required to build and nurture an effective network. Like any marketing system, networking is a layered, iterative process that includes several key steps. Casting a wide net is important in marketing to help ensure that your message reaches the largest possible audience. Social media and email marketing tools are helpful to building lists and keeping them alive with occasional thought-provoking topics and news announcements. From a business development perspective, we’ll call this step one.
If step one is all about building lists of prospective networking partners, then step two is making a personal impression. This literally means showing up at networking events and meetings to introduce yourself so that people become of aware of you and the value you offer to them and people they might know. Repeating this action builds relationships as people get to know you personally and become more comfortable reflecting your message and value to others. Some will immediately make the right connection, but most will not and for them it takes time.
Step three is developing and nurturing relationships. This only happens one-on-one. All the social media and group meetings combined cannot develop effective, meaningful trusted relationships as well as personal face-to-face conversations can. Of course, you can only meet so many people in one day so this requires a very selective approach. In the beginning, if you are new to networking in your area you cannot afford to be too choosy until you establish a reputation and a networking presence. However, as quickly as possible you will want to meet with people who appear to offer the greatest return on your investment in time and relationship building efforts over time. In this stage, you are not looking for leads or sales opportunities as much as you are building a rapport and a personal relationship with the other party. Turn on the sales mode too soon and you are likely to turn them off.
Step four, a natural development from step three, is all about service. As you develop the relationship with your new networking friend, listen carefully for anything that sounds like a need for expertise or a resource. Carefully note any of those perceived needs and then plan on working to find solutions for them later on. If you can identify other people in your network that may serve the need you identified, follow up with an email thanking them for the meeting and recommending the resource. Include contact information for the resource so they can follow up directly. Never communicate any expectation of reciprocal behavior or compensation for productive referrals of this nature. Also, do not recommend someone you do not actually know. If the resource is simply someone connected to you on a social network page, or referred by another friend, then make it clear to the networking contact that you have heard of this person that seems to fit what they were looking for but you have no direct experience with him/her. This activity goes a long way to demonstrating to the other party that you are listening to them and that you care enough about the relationship to take the time to make the referrals.
Step five is introducing networking partners to your customers. At some point in the development of the networking relationship, you will conclude that the services offered by this contact may be valuable to your existing customers and other networking partners. You will also begin to believe that the networking friend is trustworthy and will not damage your reputation with your customer. If you are correct and the introduction and subsequent service delivery go well, you will gain respect from your customer as a solutions provider in a broader capacity than what they originally perceived. They are more likely to ask your opinion on other topics related to their business and your influence with them will grow. You will also gain the confidence of the network partner who will feel a much stronger desire to reciprocate with business referrals in the opposite direction, which leads you to step six.
Step six is crucial to solidifying your networking base and securing your business for the future. This involves delivering on the promise that was made when your trusted network partner referred you to a customer. Of course, you should always strive to delight customers with outstanding products and services. At no time is this more important than the first customer engagement from a referral partner. First, you will gain the most valuable commodity possible and that is a paying and happy customer who will be of immense value to you as a reference. Second, the feedback from the customer to the referral partner will reinforce their decision to introduce you to the customer and they will then trust you sufficiently to do so again without reservation. This step turbo-charges your networking efforts and places business development into high gear.
Step seven is what we might call the universal law of networking. If there is only one lesson to take away from the subject of networking, it is “Just show up”. Sometimes network group meetings seem to be filled with people who seem far removed from the opportunities you are targeting. Occasionally, a personal networking meeting gets cold before your coffee does, as the other party seems less than interested in the services or solutions you provide. These events can be discouraging to even the most optimistic sales person. However, experience shows that simply being present repeatedly eventually results in opportunities that would otherwise go elsewhere. This is where the power of iteration comes in. Make a habit of following up regularly with your networking contacts and attending networking events to begin to build momentum. Once the opportunity wheel starts to turn, you will gain customers and the value of all your networking efforts will pay off for the long run.
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