For many small business owners, trying to find the time to network can seem like an unwanted and occasionally unnecessary burden. However, as any successful entrepreneur knows all too well, establishing relationships remains a key component when trying to grow a business.
So how do you meet the need to network when placed under the time constraints required to build a successful business? Like the old adage goes: network smarter, not harder.
Here are five networking strategies that will allow you to grow relationships without sacrificing the time and attention your business needs to thrive.
Only Network in Your Niche
Networking within a limited amount of time means you need to narrow who you attempt to network with to only those people or organizations that offer the biggest possible benefit to your business. This means understanding your business’ niche, and what networking opportunities best match the products or services you offer.
For example, say you run a storage and “junk” removal business, which can typically benefit greatly from networking and word-of-mouth referrals. Attending networking events for real estate agents or estate sale planners would offer more potential client leads for your business than attending, say, a local ad club or chamber of commerce meeting because they can introduce you to clients that need the services you offer before showing their homes or preparing onsite sales.
Small businesses not interested in landing only a few large accounts, but built to spread out its business to hundreds of customers and clients need to focus on these type of networking opportunities that offer the chance to meet people that can refer business, rather than trying to directly network with potential clients.
Create a list of the type of companies or business people that can refer you clients and target those networking events where they will be present.
Schedule Time to Network
Building up a successful network doesn’t happen overnight or just by accident. You need to put the time in to make networking happen, which is why it’s important make networking part of your weekly schedule.
Don’t get fooled into thinking that networking can only occur at scheduled events. Even if no obviously business lunches or mixers present themselves, set an appointment in your schedule to “network” at least once in your weekly calendar. During this time you can still make progress networking by engaging in small activities likes using your social-media presence to brag about your expertise or provide content about your business through Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn; make a phone call to a business associate or client you haven’t talked to in a while; or send a personal card that follows up on some recently concluded business.
While none of these networking steps may seem like an immediate home run, you never know what small gesture or activity will lead to the biggest gain in future business.
Don’t Dine Alone
As excellently explained in Keith Ferrazzi’s book, Never Eat Alone, meals make for a wonderful opportunity to squeeze some networking time into any busy schedule.
After all, everybody needs to eat, which creates a wonderful excuse for a contact to break away from his or her office to join you for a bite.
Just remember to keep at least one main goal in mind for each lunch or dinner meeting. If not, you’ll find yourself having quite a few meals that move your waistline forward more so than your business’ bottom line.
Keep in mind that if you were the one requesting the lunch or dinner meeting or are the one receiving the advice or coaching, professional etiquette says you should always at least offer to pick up the tab.
Become a Network Enabler
Some of the world’s greatest networkers benefit from the reputation of connecting individuals and businesses within their network to each other, when appropriate.
Whether just passing along a phone number, sending an email introduction or arranging a meeting, helping members of your network grow their own networks creates a bigger pool where everyone can benefit.
A key introduction could come back to benefit you in a number of pleasantly unexpected ways, so don’t hesitate when the right opportunity comes up to bring different parts of your network together.
Share What You Know
Whether trying to build your network or business, demonstrating your expertise is vital to earning credibility and client trust.
Professional social networks offer a great opportunity to provide thought leadership. Members can demonstrate they understand the needs of clients, while the community nature of social networks means that helpful and interesting insights are often forwarded along to other contacts, increasing the reach of the contributor.
You can increase your reach and share what you know by writing a post, offering to host a Google Hangout or Skype session where you answer audience questions or post a helpful tutorial to your business’ YouTube channel.
By taking your expertise public, you increase the likelihood that others will start coming to you to make networking opportunities happen, saving you time in the long run.