Networking tips for small business owners

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The research is clear: Networking helps businesses thrive. Harvard Business Review studied lawyers at a large North American law firm and found that their success depended on their ability to network effectively: Those who networked were assigned to better clients and brought in more business.1

Although networking can sometimes feel uncomfortable, or self-promotion can feel unnatural, it's an important tool to boost your business connections.

Networking tips to follow

Networking should be something to embrace, says Russ Young, owner of small business consultancy ActionCoach Atlanta.

“So many people start networking and they don’t know what they’re trying to achieve,” Young says. “They want to focus on the big sale or try hard to impress people. Trying too hard is one mistake that many make, but staying quiet can be problematic too. You want to listen and ask and listen again.”

When networking, Young tries to talk about himself only a little, even when asked, and always tries to drive the conversation back to the person he’s talking to. That way, he can suggest a conversation or a follow-up to get (or give) more information.

It’s important to have a precise and memorable way of talking about your business and yourself. One of the most common questions you get asked is “What do you do?” But many individuals don’t take advantage of the valuable business storytelling potential in the answer.

Some experts recommend creating an elevator pitch for you or your business: A concise-but-compelling way to describe what you do. Young backs this up: Have a simple answer to this question and support it with a memorable fact about yourself or your business that you feel confident about.

Adapt to the situation

Remember: It’s also important to tailor your techniques slightly depending on what kind of networking event you’re attending. Young identifies six different types:

  • Casual-contact networks (young professionals network)
  • Community service clubs (Kiwanis, Rotary)
  • Industry-specific networks (professional associations)
  • Niche networks (women’s networking group)
  • Social business networks (local/regional business associations)
  • Strong closed-contact networks (Business Network International)

At any event, Young aims to talk to at least three people he wants to actually follow up with. He tries to avoid “vultures,” or people who are there only to sell and not to create real relationships. For interactions with those people, the kind and graceful exit is vital: Don’t be afraid of it, just embrace an excuse and depart.

Then, it’s all about following up: Young takes his business cards home and sends emails, or even handwritten cards, to people he felt he could work with. He also writes down key details that he learned while listening, which provides him with more opportunities to follow up, and create connections with different individuals.

“Reciprocity is a good rule in networking,” Young says. “Whatever people give to you, give back. Whatever questions they ask, ask them back. If you have that mindset, it’s more successful.”

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