How To Build Your Small Business By Networking

by Tom Egelhoff

Author Tom Egelhoff

Small Busines Networking. It's easily one of the most overused "buzzwords" of the last ten years.

Most people think they know what it means but few practice it with any regularity.

For this exercise we'll define it as meeting and relating to others in an effort to form relationships which will enhance our business.

I receive a lot of emails from companies big and small who tell me they have been in business for many years and all of a sudden their customer base that has sustained them for so long is slowly eroding.

Revenues of the business decline year after year and the business owner sits, watching, and hoping that some act of fate will reverse the process. Usually without success.

How You Networked Before You Knew What It Was

Sit down and make a list of your closest business associates.

They might be former employees, competitors, service club members (Kiwanis, Lions, etc.), suppliers, people from church, relatives and any others I may have left out.

Now, go through the list and try to reconstruct how you met each of these people and how the relationship grew to the level it is today. Were you born knowing these people? No!

You met them yourself or were introduced to them by someone else. But beyond that YOU formed the relationship. The person who introduced you was not always there every step of the way.

You worked to make the relationship work for some reason. As business associates being friends with them was partly a business decision.

I don't mean to imply that you use your friends but sometimes we have more than one reason to maintain the friendship. And that reason is usually because this person can help our business in some way.

Maybe they're a source of information you need. Perhaps you do business with them and they do it with you. A reciprocal relationship.

How To Do Networking The Right Way

Here in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, our Chamber of Commerce started "leads groups" four or five years ago.

Leads groups are composed of non-competiting businesses that may all have similar customers.

In my group leads group we have a business coach, a real-estate agent, a furniture maker, a health insurance agent, a banker, a stove and spa salesman, newspaper editor, a janitorial service, a financial planner, a CPA and a mortgage company.

Not every customer of mine is going to need all of the services listed above but they might need some of them.

So when someone asks, "Do you know a good......?" I can say, "Yes I do." "Let me call and introduce you."

How will the fact that I recommended my business associate affect the customers perception of that business associate. It will be positive won't it?

Networking done correctly will produce referrals that will boost your business over a period of time. How did you find this web site?

Chances are someone emailed the URL to you and told you to take a look.

The best advertising, that I can't buy anywhere, by the way, is people like you who may refer the site or this article to someone else. And please do.

My "50 Butt" Rule

This rule is very simple. Any time there are more than "50 Butts" in a room, my butt's in there with them.

That may sound crude but believe me it works. If you want people to come to your business and help you build and promote it you must have people who will talk about your business to people you'll never meet.

I know what you're saying, "Tom, I don't have time to attend a lot of stupid meetings." My answer is to make time.

Whatever you're doing is not nearly as important as marketing your business. "I don't meet people easily." Neither do I.

I'm a pretty shy person. Most everyone is the room is shy. Just be less shy than they are.

If you asked most people here in town if that's true they would probably say no. I force myself to be outgoing and make the first move in meeting people.

I know I may be talking to a potential customer who may become one of my best. If they don't become a customer, the worst thing that can happen is I'll end up with a new friend.

Dealing With Meetings

Using my 50 butt rule, you are going to be attending some meetings from time to time. There are some basic meeting rules that anyone can use to make the evening go a little smoother.

Make sure you can describe what you do in a few words . Keep it around 25 words and at an eighth grade level.

A complicated description that no one understands can make everyone uncomfortable. "I'm Joe Smith and my company, Smith Inc, redesigns closets so you have more room."

Arrive early, stay late. Get to the meeting at least 15 minutes early. That's when most of the actual networking takes place.

Think of yourself as the host of your own party rather than a guest. If you introduce yourself and extend your hand, almost everyone will shake it and introduce themselves.

Your Portable Ad

What's a portable ad you ask? It's your business card and it goes every where you go...24 hours a day. How can I make this clear?

You are never, ever without a business card. They go in your wallet or purse, in all your vehicles, at home and at work. You never leave home without cards.....ever.

Everyone in your neighborhood should know what you do. Politicians go door to door, why not you too? Introduce yourself and let your neighbors know your business.

Your business card goes in every bill every time you pay it. If you are a local business put your card in local bills. If you have a web site and sell something it goes in every bill...every time you PAY IT!!

Make sure you ask everyone you meet for their card. After the conversation with them is over move away and write down whatever you learned about the person on the back of their card.

This will remind you of the points you covered during the conversation.

Name Tags

"Hello, My Name Is........." I hate those name badges as much as anyone but they play an important part in the meeting process.

Print your first and last name and the name of your company on your badge. Place the badge on your right side so when you shake hands the person can easily read the badge.

The other important function the badge plays is acquainting you with people you won't meet.

As people pass by, they often read the badges of people they pass. It's one more impression of your company name that is out there working for you.

One-on-One Is Best

Concentrate on one person at a time. Group discussions are sometimes productive but the real relationship building comes with personal contact.

Follow-Up Is Key

Make sure you follow up with an email, fax, letter or personal call to anyone you feel may turn into a business associate or customer. Start the relationship right away while the contact still remembers who you are.

Contact List/Mailing List

Make a mailing list of new contacts. Send them information about your company with a letter expressing your pleasure in meeting them.

Tell them that the information you are enclosing is to supplement the conversation at the meeting.

Referrals Build Business

There is nothing more powerful than a referral. When someone recommends you and your business the customer has an expectation of service and is more comfortable in dealing with you.

If someone sends you a referral make sure you thank them. Send a note or even better, a personal call expressing your appreciation for the referral. This will encourage the referring party to do it again.

Pace Yourself With Networking

Bozeman has something going on almost every night. I could probably attend seven or eight meetings a week if I wanted to. Don't overdo it.

Your professionalism will suffer because it will become tedious rather than fun. Keep it to one or two meetings a week.

Besides, in a small town, many of the same people will show up in the same circle. If you miss them in one meeting you can catch them at the next one.

Pick and choose based on the subject matter of the meeting matching up with the target market you are looking for.

The Last Word On Small Business Networking

The final point I want to make is that in a small town relationships are much more important than in large cities.

People will find out about you faster and the good and the bad about your company won't be secret long.

Being active in the community says a lot about you and your business. If you're not networking and your competition is it's going to be a long cold winter for you.

Be the ant not the grasshopper. Put customers away now for the cold months ahead.

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