When you mention business networking to some small business owners, you see a look of dread come across their face.
They think early morning meetings with people they have nothing in common with just putting their business cards into a bowl and talking about their own organisations.
And in some ways, this is what a business networking event can be like – but it really isn’t the most common option and business networking events can actually be both extremely interesting and particularly beneficial.
However, to get the most from them, every attendee needs to understand, above all else, that the events are not sales events.
You’re of course going to tell other people about your small business, but one of the key reasons why so many small business owners don’t benefit from networking events is because they – and other attendees – think of the event as being a platform upon which they can talk endlessly about their small business and what they’re looking to achieve.
Essentially a sales situation, the hard sell approach is quickly becoming ineffective in the company-customer scenario, so why would it remain effective in the networking world?
The Initial Approach
Whenever you’re in a networking scenario, you need to have a clear entrance path to any conversation. Whether it’s to an entire group as part of a set talk or on a one-to-one basis over an informal coffee, your initial approach is going to count most.
A great first impression is what people remember, so don’t enter into any conversation that basically follows the pattern of ‘me, me, me’. Talk about your small business, but do so somewhat subtly or interestingly.
Talk about something that’s going to catch the ears of the people you’re talking to. Maybe it’s a certain niche that you’re focusing on, a brand new product you offer that isn’t available anywhere else or simply the way you started in business if it’s humorous.
You need something that isn’t going to make people switch off – and if you’ve got that, you’ve got them gripped and ready to find out more.
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The Need To Listen
But although people are ready and waiting for further information, it must never be forgotten that a networking event is a two-way process. It’s for this reason why you must always listen as much as you’re talking – if not more.
You need to take on-board what others are telling you. Understand their business and them as a person and ask questions. They don’t need to be in-depth or forced questions on a business level – ask something that’s of genuine interest to you about a point they’ve said and the relationship will be more positively impacted on.
This point is actually arguably the most important and the one where a lot of people fall down. When you look at poor sales scenarios around the hard sell approach, the reason they’re not favourable is because the sales person isn’t taking on board the needs of the customers, something that comes back to the fact they’re not listening to what they’re being told or asked.
The Actions Afterwards
What’s more, the small business owners who don’t benefit from business networking events are often those who do nothing after they’ve left the meeting. They wait for the time to come when they can leave and do so in a hurry, failing to make any actionable points for afterwards or carry out any form of positive activity.
When a networking event is coming to a close or you’re about to leave, it’s time to start re-engaging with everyone you’ve interacted with. Thank them for their time, make a personal comment about their organisation to show that you really have listened and then do something to ensure contact continues afterwards.
What this is can actually vary massively, but good ideas are e-mailing them after the event for / with further information, arranging to meet up to discuss how you could potentially work together or simply calling them to stay in touch.
It doesn’t have to be anything major, as ‘results’ from business networking events may not be seen immediately, but the relationships must be maintained to ensure that some positive outcomes are seen at some point.
Networking with your fellow small business owners can be time-consuming, laborious and ineffective – but it can also be one of the most beneficial things you do in business.
With so much to consider, the most important point to note is that you shouldn’t think of networking events as sales meetings. Instead, you need to think of them as a time where you can have a coffee with like-minded individuals and hopefully develop long-lasting, professional relationships, as these are the relationships that are truly going to benefit your small business – and theirs – at some point in the future.