A successful run for government office is impossible to accomplish without participating in the time-honored tradition of shaking hands and kissing babies - in other words, doing some serious networking. Likewise, a successful small business or freelance career is only possible when you take time to develop and nurture connections. Whether it’s with vendors, customers or colleagues, career advancement depends on learning to build and maintain effective business relationships.
Working as an elected official is the ultimate networking job. Nothing can be accomplished without at least some form of consensus, so the process of winning people over to your side is vital to success. One of America's most famous presidents, John F. Kennedy, knew that networking was about far more than twisting arms - it was about extending AND maintaining his list of important contacts.
Throughout JFK’s first year as President, there were frequent clashes with an uncooperative Congress. But he didn‘t simply adopt an "us versus them" mentality. Instead, he worked at building relationships. Sending handwritten birthday cards to members of Congress, inviting them to small, informal gatherings and making many personal phone calls to reminisce about old times were just a few of the expert networking techniques he employed. So how can you do the same? Here’s some tips to help you take your business networking to the next level.
Network with Attitude
First point to keep in mind: networking is not about you making a sale! No matter how “subtly” you go about it, the majority of potential contacts will be turned off by that kind of self-serving attitude. If finding new customers is the only reason you network, then you’re missing out on the bigger picture.
Instead, adjust your attitude. Approach networking as a way to meet people who can give you useful advice, help you grow in your craft and even provide mentoring when needed. The flip side of this is that you also need to bring something to the table. Find ways to use your knowledge and contacts to benefit those whom you‘re connecting with.
A great piece of advice from Ivan Misner: “The true master networkers know that networking events are about moving through the relationship process and not just about closing deals. Visibility leads to credibility which, with time and effort, leads to profitability.” Becoming a trusted contact is the best way to insure future sales and referrals.
- Action Step: Next time you meet a new contact, take time to get to know them. Let the majority of the conversation focus on their work and interests. Afterwards, follow up with an e-mail that shows you were listening and provides some helpful info based on the initial conversation.
The World Wide Networking Web
Next, take your networking online. And no, I’m not talking about simply having a LinkedIn profile or Facebook business page. Conducting networking via the internet is about engaging with people. Find forums where other graphic artists hang out and join in the conversation. Look for blogs by potential vendors and start reading and commenting on them. Follow people on Twitter who are interested in and/or involved in your industry. Online you’ll find every possible group and even subgroups in your areas of interests - that’s where to start connecting.
Also make sure you have an internet “home” to point new contacts to. For online networking to succeed, people need to be able to connect with and get to know you. Whether your internet abode is a blog, your Twitter account or a LinkedIn page, take the time to check and update it on a regular basis! Don’t forget to keep it professional…while your close friends find that embarrassing photo funny, business contacts that see it might be turned off.
- Action Step: After you make a useful online contact, give them some free publicity. Interview them on your blog, tweet about their business or put a link to their blog on your website. This allows you to easily build the relationship and shows them the value of interacting with you.
Real World Networking
While online is a great way to begin meeting and connecting with people, don’t bypass the importance of offline connections. Whether it’s a facial expression, a tone of voice or even the bumper stickers on someone's car - there’s so many subtleties of relationship building that don’t occur online. It’s much easier to develop a friendship when you have a face to see and a hand to shake.
How to go about it? First, join your local chamber of commerce and attend their meetings. You’ll be introduced to a wide range of business owners, and might stumble upon some partnership opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. Next, get involved in local industry groups or associations. This is a great way to build your own skills and learn more about who’s who in your field. Finally, have a booth at a fair or trade show where potential customers will attend. Spend time really listening to their needs instead of trying to sell them something. You’ll gain valuable insights that will refine and focus your product offering.
- Action Step: When you attend an offline networking event, go armed with a list of questions to ask other attendees. Whether it’s advice on complying with a local ordinance or insight into how colleagues have penetrated the market, seek to learn. Also have in mind information you can offer. Know a great vendor? Share their contact info. Are you an expert in real estate? Give advice on what parts of town are hot and what parts to avoid. People will remember those who helped them without trying to sell them something.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, networking doesn’t instantly grow your business. Instead, the process is about building relationships that will have long-term benefits, both for you and your contact. Approach it with this attitude and you’ll find yourself networking with the best of them! But watch out. If you're really good at it, a future in politics just might await you...
How do you approach networking? What advice do you have for others who are new to the process? Share your insights in the comments section below.