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Smart Management: Effective Business Networking

In all phases of my career, but particularly now as a business owner, networking has played a critical role in my ability to be successful. Effective networking is my number one marketing tool. Creating mutually beneficial relationships where you can help each other, share information, exchange best practices, and identify new opportunities is an important end point of networking.

So why is it so many people struggle with finding ways to network? There are actually many reasons, but I'll name a few of the most prevalent:

• Many people believe they don't need to network unless they're looking for a new job or have a desire to change positions within their own company. The reality is relationships can take years to nurture, so you need to start immediately.

• Some believe if they're doing a good job at work, they should be noticed without having to network internally or externally. But in today's world, it's up to you to get noticed. The "networkers" are usually the ones who find the better opportunities, simply because they have the connections.

• Others are uncomfortable with the idea of formal networking. They don't know what to say or how to maximize interaction. They are intimidated by the idea of talking to strangers and perhaps saying the wrong thing. As with learning any new skill, you become more comfortable the more you do it.

• Some may have had an unsuccessful networking experience in the past, and don't feel compelled to invest the time or energy that is required. Contrary to what they may think, exchanging business cards or accepting lots of LinkedIn invitations alone does not constitute effective networking.

So, if you've decided you want to build better networking relationships, let's talk about a few things that can help get you started on the right path:

View networking as a mutually beneficial exchange. It's not about "What's in it for me?" It's about "How can we help each other?" Remember the Zig Ziglar saying: "You can only get what you want if you help enough other people get what they want." Spend enough time conversing with people at networking events so you know a little about what motivates them in their line of work, as well as to get a better grasp of the type of support they need.

Are there particular issues they are faced with—issues where, with a little research, you may be able to find them an article of interest or a subject matter expert? What about introducing them to another network connection of yours?

Join a professional organization where you can get involved. If you already belong to an association/group, get to know the other members and their backgrounds. Introduce people to each other. Reach out and ask for advice and ideas on a particular area you may be working on.

Establish a goal of meeting and getting to know 1-2 new contacts per month within the organization you belong to. This is one of the biggest opportunities for networking people don't take advantage of. They join an organization, but don't find the time to really utilize the networking opportunities that exist.

Stay in contact with previous business and personal connections. With tools such as LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Facebook, there is no excuse not to be connected with people you know from the past and present. Allocate enough time weekly to add new connections and reach out to existing ones. Schedule the time on your calendar, just like you would a business meeting.

Give referrals. One of the quickest ways to get business is to give business to others. Make a list of commonly requested services and determine who within your network can offer those services. A word of caution: Only refer people who you are confident will do a great job. Whomever you refer will be a reflection on you.

Build relationships and keep an updated contact directory. Once you've started the networking cycle, begin establishing relationships. Find ways to stay in contact with those that you feel offer mutually beneficial opportunities. Log interesting facts about the people you meet. Note the date of your last conversation and a brief summary of important points. If you sent them an article, note it.

These entries come in handy when you have your next dialogue with the person. Remember, it can take as many as eight interactions before you can build a good networking relationship.

Utilize social networking tools. If someone invites you to connect on LinkedIn, Plaxo, or any of the other "business" networks and you don't know them, consider spending 15 minutes on the phone in a brief dialogue. Determine if there are ways each of you can help each other in your line of business. I have used this frequently when asked to link with someone I don't know. And 50 percent of the time, I find a great new networking contact.

For more tips and ideas on networking, I recommend "Make Your Contacts Count" by Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon. It's filled with great tips and advice on how to maximize your connections.

Mary Donato is president of Applied Principles and associate director of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets. She can be contacted at mary@marypdonato.com.