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If you are an entrepreneur or small business owner, like it or not, you need to master the art of networking.
If I’m being brutally honest (and I usually am), networking was not high on my list of fun things to do when I started my business. But I knew it was important and that doing it well could make or break me, especially in a small town.
So, I swallowed my nerves and decided to jump in with both feet and do this networking thing!
Let’s be honest, it’s a work in progress and I’m still learning the ins and outs of networking, both online and off. But I have learned a few things in my recent experience, and here are a few of my top tips for small business networking.
This seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but it doesn’t count as networking if you don’t engage. Listen, I know you’re nervous. You joined a group and it seems like people are chatting, but you don’t really know what to say. Try this. What would you say if you walked into a room filled with these people? Would you grab a coffee and stand in the corner? Probably not. Even if you were super-nervous, you would likely walk up to someone who looked friendly and introduce yourself. And you know what? They would know someone else in the room whom they would introduce you to, and before you know it, 25 people in the room would know who you are and that you own “Business ABC” down on the corner. Done! Online networking is no different. Introduce yourself, make a connection, and it will grow from there.
The most irritating thing I hear with regards to networking is “their business is not relevant to mine.” Really? Everyone’s business is relevant to everyone else’s business in some way. Should the photographer connect with the mobile spray tanner? Yes! Brides like a nice glow before their wedding photos. Should the groomer connect with the dog trainer? Yes! They have the same client base. Hello referrals!
Here’s a great example pulled right from an online networking group I’m in. One couple from the group owns a cabinet refinishing company. Do I personally need my cabinets refinished? No. But guess what? I have quite a few clients in the real estate industry, and they are forever telling THEIR clients to refresh their homes before listing them for sale. So it is totally to my benefit to engage with the cabinet people, because I may be able to send them some business, even if it is not my own. And people remember that. And what do they do in return? Refer YOUR business to people they know. It’s that simple. Make the connection. Trust me.
EVERYONE’S BUSINESS IS RELEVANT TO EVERYONE ELSE’S IN SOME WAY.
Go and meet them! – I know! Even more scary, right? Not really. You would be surprised how open and welcoming people are when you have chatted with them online and then drop into their place of business to meet them in person. It makes them feel important. And they ARE important! It’s not a cheesy sales visit with a greasy handshake. (Eeeooo!) It’s a genuine desire to meet them face to face and increase your connection.
There’s a quote I’ve heard many times and I don’t remember who originally said it, but the gist of it is that people will forget what you did, they will forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. And making a genuine effort to step out from behind the keyboard and meet someone in person will be memorable to them.
And it doesn’t even have to be an “official” visit. I stopped into a store downtown earlier this week because I happened to have an appointment around the corner. Simple as that. I wasn’t dressed for business (at all!), but I stopped in to say hi and introduce myself to someone I had only met online up until that point. Turns out she provides a great service that I will likely take advantage of around the holidays. Bonus! And she didn’t care that I was wearing jeans and sneakers. Double bonus!
Which leads me to my next point……
Now, please use some common sense here. Don’t buy 100 candles from the local candle shop if you hate candles, or sign up for a salsa class at the local dance studio if you hate dancing. But if a local business is providing a service that you need (either personally or professionally) then go for it! Buy the candles to decorate your office. Become a salsa queen! If nothing else, it will keep your dollars in the local economy (IMPORTANT!) and strengthen your connection with other small business owners.
Whether they reciprocate with their business is irrelevant. What’s important is that you have connected with some new people, and are able to recommend them to others. “Hey, Peggy sent me!.” That’s powerful. And it will come back to you full circle. Because when someone in THEIR network is looking for YOUR services, guess whose name will come to mind? Not because they saw your ad in the paper, or scrolled past your Facebook post, but because you know them, you do business with them, and you are connected on a personal level.
The key to all of this is to be GENUINE! You have to genuinely want to connect with people. If not, then your attempts at networking, both online and offline, will come across as fake and contrived. And don’t worry about people thinking you are just being nice to them just to get their business. First of all, if they are that negative then you probably don’t want to do business with them anyway. And secondly, who has that kind of time?! Seriously!! I have a thousand things to do, and stopping by your place of business to “pretend” to be nice to you is not something I have time to add to my to-do list! If I’m connecting with you, it’s legit. Would I like to grow my business? Of course I would! But wouldn’t you like to grow yours as well?