19 Sep 2016
Networking works – if you work it!
Written by Doug D'Aubrey

If you own or manage a company, chances are you’ve been invited to at least one networking event.

They come in all shapes and sizes: big and small; morning, lunch or evening; weekly, fortnightly or one-off events; paid membership or free to attend… you get the picture! The burning question is, however, do any of them work?

The short answer is yes – but I do need to qualify that by saying yes, if you understand what networking is all about and do it the right way! You can’t expect to turn up at a networking event for the first time and leave with 20 new customers. There’s a networking etiquette that you need to understand and appreciate before you swagger in with a handful of business cards.

So, let’s start with the basics.

What is networking?

I quite like the description of networking on Wikipedia: “Networking is a socioeconomic business activity by which businesspeople and entrepreneurs meet to form business relationships and to recognise, create, or act upon business opportunities, share information and seek potential partners for ventures.”

Notice, nowhere does it say businesspeople go to sell their products or services! In my own words, networking is a marketing activity, the aim of which is to grow your contacts, meet people you may have a business affinity with and find potential referral partners.

What is a referral partner?

A referral partner is someone you could form a mutually beneficial business relationship with – someone you could pass contacts or work to and who can reciprocate, in turn passing useful contacts and opportunities to you.  In the wedding industry, for example, bridalwear shops, cake-makers, venues, photographers, florists and hair and beauty salons could all be great referral partners for each other.  Working together, a group of referral partners can become a power team that continually generate business for each other.

A great referral partner will generally:

  • Work alongside or within the same industry as you
  • Have a similar client base
  • Be a well established and trusted supplier with a proven reputation
  • Be someone you like or feel you can get on well with!

That last point may not sound particularly politically correct but, for any business partnership to work, it has to be based on mutual respect and trust and you need to feel a willingness to work together.

How do I go about finding referral partners?

Attending networking events and business exhibitions is a great first step to finding potential referral partners, but you have to go with the right attitude.  Turn up with the intention of finding out as much as you can about the other businesses attending.  Ask questions first, before mentioning what it is you do.  Here are some great questions, after ‘What do you do?’ that will help you glean the information you need to determine whether or not they will be a good ‘match’ for you and a potential referral partner:

  • Who do you work with already?
  • Who is your ideal customer?
  • Are you looking to connect with anyone specific today?
  • How can I help you?

People generally like to talk about themselves, so it shouldn’t be hard to get a conversation started.  If you think there is a genuine affinity, ask to book a one-to-one meeting at a later date where you can talk at greater length.

Which networking events are best?

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, there are a huge variety of networking events out there.  Which one is best will differ for everyone.  Not all networking events will necessarily suit you and your business, so I always suggest you attend a few to:

  • Discover what other businesses attend
  • Decide if you like the meeting structure – some are very formal and some informal, for example
  • Work out if you can commit to the group – some have certain expectations of their members, like bringing visitors to the group or passing a certain amount of referrals to other members
  • Determine whether you feel it is worth the investment, both in terms of your time and any membership or meeting fees

If you are going to commit to attending one networking group regularly, make it one that you’re comfortable with, and that you feel you can benefit from.  Set yourself a time limit – say six months. If you haven’t found any opportunities with other members in this time, move on!

Do I have to attend meetings to network?

To meet new people and find fresh opportunities, attending events and meetings is the best way. Before you do that, however, just take a look through your existing database of contacts. Think about the qualities I set out above that make a great referral partner. You may have contacts that fit the bill already, but have never thought to explore the potential for passing referrals to one another. Find five influential people in your business circle – ask them how you can help each other.

The best advice I can offer is to give networking a go with the above in mind. You’re not looking for hundreds of people, just a select few that can become key referral partners. Offer to help others and you will usually find they are willing to help you in return.

If you would like to join me as a visitor at a networking group in Wolverhampton, I attend a weekly meeting at The Goldthorn Hotel on a Thursday morning.  There is no obligation to join.  For more information, please give me a call on 01384 355 444.