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New To Networking? No Problem

Build your networking skills--one step at a time.

As an entrepreneur, one of your primary goals is to continue to fill your pipeline with new business. One of the most cost-effective ways to do this--particularly for a smaller business--is through networking. Before you can begin to be an effective networker, it's important to identify some of the strengths and skill sets that you bring to the table as a business professional.

  • Are you a people person?
  • Do you enjoy public speaking?
  • What kind of professional background did you have before starting your business?
  • How long have you lived in the area where you do business?
  • What other natural skills do you have (such as time management, organizational skills or keeping clients focused) that may not fall directly into your business expertise but are valued by people?

One of the biggest roadblocks to networking is the fear that being more of an introvert impedes any successful attempts at networking. In fact, it's a question I get quite frequently: "How do I network if I'm not a naturally outgoing person?"

Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief, you don't have to become Mr. Man-About-Town, to be a successful networker. Most business people, over time, naturally develop a certain level of comfort from dealings with customers, vendors and others in their day-to-day transactions. So even people who aren't gregarious or outgoing can form meaningful relationships and communicate with a little practice.

Become the host
Over years of teaching people the art of networking we've found many techniques that can make the process markedly easier--especially for those who consider themselves a bit introverted. For example, volunteering to be an ambassador or visitor host for a local business networking event can be a great way to get involved without leaving your comfort-zone.

If you're wondering how being a host can help your introversion just think about it. When you have guests at your house or office, what do you do? You engage them, make them feel comfortable; perhaps offer them something to drink. What you don't do is stand by yourself in the corner thinking about how much you hate meeting new people.

By serving as a visitor host at your local chamber event, you effectively become the host of the party. Try it! You'll find it much easier to meet and talk to new people.

Build your social capital at your desk
If it's taking you a bit longer to get used to face-to-face networking, remember that thanks to technology's continuing advances, you can also network without ever leaving your desk--online networking is a very effective way to connect with potential clients and referral sources.

Computer technology and the growth of the internet has made it easier than ever before to connect with large numbers of people. Online networking gives you broad reach with low cost and effort.

What online networking doesn't do, however, is provide a forum where relationships can deepen. The nature of the medium strips away essential communication cues such as facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. That is why emoticons were invented--to help convey whether one is happy :D, unhappy :(, or joking around ;).

Online networking has an etiquette all its own which some would deem rude. Communications are blunter and less polite, and this often comes across as aggressiveness. It's easy to get "flamed" online-- encounter open hostility that is. In person, social norms still dictate more restraint.

It's usually better to use online networking with people only after you've established a relationship with them by traditional means. To develop trust, respect and true friendship, it's hard to beat in-person conversation and the occasional handshake or pat on the shoulder.

Offer advice to break the ice
So, we're back to the challenge of doing some face-to-face networking and you haven't had much practice at it, or you're not sure how to break the ice. You might want to start by offering some free professional advice.

Let's say you're a real estate agent talking with someone at a networking event who, although not ready to buy a home today, is heading in that direction. You could say something like this:

Well, I know you're not interested in buying a home right now. But when you're ready to start looking, I'd highly recommend checking out the north part of town. A lot of my clients are seeing their homes appreciate in the 10 to 20 percent range, and from what I understand, the city is thinking about building another middle school in that area.

See how it's possible to offer some value-added advice without coming across too sales-y? A statement like this acknowledges that you aren't trying to push them, while still demonstrating your expertise. He will probably remember the conversation when he's ready to act.

This model works for just about anyone in a service-based industry in which knowledge is the main product. If you're a marketing consultant, give your prospects a couple of ideas on how they can increase the exposure of their business. Don't go overboard; maybe share a technique you read in a magazine or tried with one of your clients.

This technique open up a good conversation with the person while you're networking and, if you play your cards right, who do you think they'll go to when they're in need of your kind of service? When it comes to building rapport and trust, few things do it better than solid, helpful information provided out of a genuine concern for the other person.

Become a trusted source for quality referrals and contacts
Another way to ease into networking is to provide a referral or contact. This could be a direct referral (someone you know who's in the market for another person's services) or a solid contact (someone who might be helpful down the road).

Let's say you're networking, and you run into a person who owns a printing shop. You talk for a while, you hit it off, and even though you don't know of anyone who's looking for this person's selection of print services right now, you'd like to help him out. So you say:

Jim, I don't know of anyone who's actively in the market for printing services right now, but I do have someone who I think could be a big help to your business. Her name is Jane Smith, and she's a marketing consultant. I know a lot of her clients need business cards, flyers and things like that printed, and while I don't know if she has a deal on the table right now, I think you both would really hit it off if you got together.

You see how easy that was? You stated right up front you don't know what will come of the contact. But you then followed up by saying you do think this person could help and briefly described how. Chances are this will sound like a good idea to your new contact.

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Ivan Misner is founder and chairman of BNI, a professional business networking organization headquartered in Upland, Calif. He is co-author, with Hazel Walker and Frank De Raffele, of Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think (Entrepreneur Press, 2012).
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