How to build a network

Give your business an unfair advantage


What entrepreneurs don’t need is an unsympathetic bank manager. But that’s what Jan Ward, MD of Corrotherm, found herself lumbered with when she was trying to expand her pipeline company, worth £30m, by doing more business in the Middle East.

Ward’s bank started out supportive, but became less so over time. “It got to the point that they were asking us for extra security, which we didn’t think was necessary, given our size,” Ward explains.

 It just so happened that, while she was attending a net-working event, Ward bumped into a senior manager from a rival bank, who invited her to come and talk about her problems. The result was that the old bank became history and Ward is now getting a great service, “much better than if I’d just walked in off the High Street”, she says.

In Ward’s experience, networking has helped her make the right contacts, build closer working relationships, improve her company’s visibility and obtain valuable information. Those that think networking is primarily about selling “miss the point”, she believes.

According to Teresa Graham, senior advisor at Baker Tilly and board member of the DTI’s Small Business Service, networking is vitally important for entrepreneurs. Without it, they lose the opportunity to share experiences with other, like-minded, business people facing similar problems and issues – from the effects of legislation to implementing shareholder schemes. New business may come as a result, but “networking is not a panacea for selling”, she says. And you shouldn’t expect immediate results.

It’s taken Graham 27 years, and a lot of hard work, to build her extensive business network. But the benefits of having instant expertise on tap are huge. “I reckon I can sort any problem within about two minutes,” she claims. It’s simply a phone call away.

Heather White, MD of The Magic of Networking, who trains companies in networking skills, believes that it’s “the proactive marketing of yourself or your business”. Where companies prefer to buy through word of mouth referrals, networking can be more appropriate than advertising as a way of winning business. Many of White’s clients have found it saves money on marketing and reduces the need for cold calling.

Of course, networking isn’t anything new. Think golf clubs and the Freemasons, but the way we’re doing it has changed. Online business networks, such as Ecademy, are experiencing massive growth by using the internet to make business contacts both nationally and globally. But you can’t network purely online, according to Thomas Power, chairman of Ecademy. “It’s a good starting point, but you can’t trade on it,” he says. It’s the company’s face-to-face events, which are best for meeting people and building relationships. Power believes these also help to build the local business community and give members the opportunity to “make money on their doorstep”.

Another important use of networking is self-protection. With so many white collar jobs under threat, due to outsourcing to lower-cost economies, it’s a matter of “network or starve”, according to Power. He views networks as “the new corporations”, providing the pastoral care and job security no longer offered by employers.

But far too often, people only start networking at a point of crisis – when business is down or redundancy strikes – and then they make a complete nuisance of themselves. The point is to make contacts before you need them.

Networking might strike you as very un-British or even rude – going up to strangers and asking for something – but its advantages far outweigh any negatives. And it’s a fun way to expand your social life, as well as your business circles.

So what exactly are the secrets of building a great network? Here are some top tips from the experts.

Choose your targets

Networking is a strategic activity, which should be linked to specific business objectives. It needs to be carefully planned and executed. The first thing White asks her clients is who they want to meet. “If they say ‘anyone who will buy my product,’ that means they’ll meet nobody,” she says.

Are you trying to raise your visibility in a particular industry? If you are, who do you need to know? Are you hoping to find a new trading partner to promote your products? Then who should you be considering? If you can’t answer these questions, then you shouldn’t be let out the door.

Choose the right events

Once you’ve drawn up your hit list, just where do you meet them? Is it at the Institute of Directors (IoD), the British Steel Association or a local networking event? Are there professional associations which you would like to belong to, but which are by invitation only? If so, where do you need to go in order to get invited?

Many companies choose the wrong events to do their networking, or never move beyond the obvious, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings. It’s vital that you belong to several networks in order to develop both a breadth and depth of contacts.

It’s also important to join the type of network that best fits your objectives and personality. According to Justin Baker, co-founder of the Six Degrees business network, there are “soft contact networks”, which are primarily social, and “hard contact networks”, which are much more sales-oriented. Soft contact networks, like Ecademy or Six Degrees, usually meet in the evening and may include a speaker, but the focus is on “a drink and a chat”. As these networks have less restricted membership, they can produce a wider range of contacts. But you may well have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince.

Hard contact networks, like BNI or BRE, usually meet over breakfast, but membership at each branch is typically limited to one company per profession or industry. Members are asked to make formal company pitches to introduce themselves and to make referrals at each meeting. This can be an efficient way of networking if your time is limited and sales are what you’re after, but your range of contacts may be more restricted.

Do your homework

Knowing who you want to meet beforehand means you can find out more about their company and interests. One of the benefits of online networking is that you can see who’s going to be there beforehand and print off their profiles. But for any type of networking event, including trade fairs and exhibitions, it should be possible to find out who will be there in advance.

According to Mike Southon, author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and chairman of the Beyond Bricks network (now part of Ecademy), good networkers will always try and find common ground with those they’re interested in meeting. Knowing what you share makes you relevant to the person you want to meet.

“Everyone hates going into a room with hundreds of people you don’t know, but if you’ve done your homework, it’s much easier,” he says. And knowing something about who you want to talk to provides a useful starting point for conversation.

Know how to get a conversation going

When you enter a room full of people, simply select the group of people you wish to join, say hello and ask to join them. “No one will ever say no,” says Glenda Stone, founder of the Aurora Women’s Network. But it’s important that you approach everyone you meet as a person first – not a sales prospect.

You could start by saying, “I see you’re interested in…” or mention the name of a contact you have in common. And there’s nothing like a buffet line to start up a conversation about the food. But if you’re attending a high-powered networking event, with key individuals you want to meet, you’ll need to have more of a conversational strategy in order to succeed.

Stone thinks it’s tricky to prepare a pitch in advance, but she does advise “knowing your dot points” about what you do, your relevance to the other person and what you want to achieve. She suggests opening with “something that unites you”. This should be followed with an introduction about yourself and what you do. Only then can you make your pitch. “You have to know the action you want and ask for it, and as far as possible secure it,” she says. But whatever you propose should always be of mutual benefit. Above all, never let your pitch be your close. “You don’t want to leave people feeling that they had to get away because you were trying to sell them something,” warns Stone.

Make the room work for you

Knowing how to get the best from an event is what most companies want to learn. “To me, working a room means trying to get to know everyone there. The truth is making really effective contacts is what’s most important,” says Baker. A realistic target is to make five or six good contacts per event.

How many contacts you have in your personal network is a matter of some debate. Thomas Power believes that the internet makes it possible to have much larger numbers of useful contacts. He recommends 1,000 contacts per £100,000 revenue you wish to achieve. Other experts think it’s important to find and cultivate quality rather than quantity.

Use business cards wisely

“If people exchange business cards it should be because they really want to, not because somebody’s trying to thrust something down their throat,” says Sally Wilton, who runs the Entrepreneurs Club. Giving out cards should therefore be a natural outcome of a good conversation, requested and exchanged, rather than something to be thrown around like confetti.

And it’s better to give them to a few people you’ve talked to in more detail, who are more likely to remember you, than to scores of people you’ve chatted to only briefly.

But, even though they’re often overused, business cards remain an important networking tool. They provide important contact details. They help to remind you who you’ve met. And you’ll need them to stay in touch.

Be positive

Stone believes there are three types of networkers: the apathetic; aggressive and positive. Apathetic networkers usually show, from their facial expression or body language, that they don’t really want to be there – so it’s no surprise that no one wants to talk to them. Aggressive “spammers” are forever trying to hard-sell their product, which is an even bigger turn-off. But positive people – who are open, relaxed and smiling – are invariably the ones who get noticed. “If you’re positive, the chances are you’ll get 10 times more opportunities out of networking,” she claims.

Give as well as take

Networking is a two-way street. Those who use networking to take what they can get may find it works once, but not again. “It’s like having a good bank account,” says Teresa Graham. “You’ve got to keep a running total in your mind and how much you’ve asked your network for favours.”

It’s no problem going into debt as long as you eventually go back into credit. Your balance will change all the time. If you’re constantly in the red, your network will soon lose patience with you. And if you’re constantly in the black, you’re being exploited.

But any good networker will tell you that you have to be prepared to put a lot of effort into it. It’s about giving more than selling.

Be an active listener

Good listening skills are crucial in effective networking. This is so you can identify what the other person needs, show you understand, and then offer to help them in the best possible way. The art of good conversation also involves skilled questioning. “Too many people go into conversations asking closed questions and then wonder why they never get anything out of it,” says Graham.

Make sure you’re remembered

“People will easily forget what you do or say, but they’ll never forget how you make them feel,” says Gill Fernley, co-founder of Six Degrees. Treating everyone you meet with respect is essential – even if they have no immediate value to you. They might have later on.

Good networkers try to connect people. Being considered a good matchmaker is the ultimate accolade. It gains friends and builds trust. And if you’ve been helpful, people are more likely to remember to do business with you in the future, or to give you a glowing referral. But if you don’t follow-up your contacts, memories will fade, no matter how good your initial impression.

Always follow-up

As soon as you’ve made a useful contact, you should be thinking about how to build the relationship. “The networking event is the opportunity to meet someone, but the follow-up is where sales can happen,” says Heather White. Given the importance of good follow-up, she’s amazed that it’s where most people go wrong.

After any event you should go through any business cards you’ve collected and send an email saying that you enjoyed meeting that person. And if you’ve promised them some help, be sure you do it.

If there’s something that you or your company are doing, which you think might well be of some interest to your contact, let them know. Keeping your ears open for business news that’s relevant to them, or forwarding interesting articles from the internet, are other good ways to stay in touch.

Go for the long term

Once you’ve got a good contact, it’s important to keep them. You must continue to regularly keep in touch. “It’s not just about saying ‘can we do any work for you,’ but asking ‘how are you?’ and taking an interest in their career. You need to cherish them in order to build a close relationship,” says Graham.

Networks need constant maintenance and monitoring, as well as replenishing. Some companies do regular appraisals to spot any gaps. Others keep a central company database of contacts, to assign responsibilities and measure success.

Networking is about opportunities, to learn, share or trade. It can broaden your experience as well as your social life. But it should be considered a means to an end, not an end in itself.

THE 12 DEADLY SINS OF NETWORKING

1. Aggressive selling

2. Poor preparation

3. Talking to the wrong people

4. Talking rubbish

5. Poor body language

6. Expecting immediate results

7. Being a bore

8. Not listening

9. Being judgmental

10. Hunting in packs

11. Forgetting promises

12. Poor network maintenance

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